Aitken v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on March 14, 2014. (src)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 13-5041
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Randall Aitken, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial
review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner)
denying his claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) and
supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Titles II and XVI of the
Social Security Act (Act). In this judicial review, the Court must determine whether there is
substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's decision. See
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Plaintiff protectively filed his current applications for DIB and SSI on October 18, 2010,
alleging an inability to work since December 31, 2008,2 due to depression and obesity. (Tr. 128,
Carolyn W. Colvin, has been appointed to serve as acting Commissioner of Social Security, and is substituted as
Defendant, pursuant to Rule 25(d)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Plaintiff, through his counsel, amended his alleged onset date to June 2, 2010. (Tr. 31).
132, 154). An administrative hearing was held on February 27, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared
with counsel and testified. (Tr. 25-60).
By written decision dated April 6, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 14).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: hypertension, morbid
obesity, and a personality disorder. However, after reviewing all of the evidence presented, the
ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any
impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No.
4. (Tr. 14). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). From
a mental standpoint, he is able to perform work where interpersonal contact is
incidental to the work performed; the complexity of tasks is learned and
performed by rote, with few variables and little judgment; and the supervision
required is simple, direct, and concrete.
(Tr. 16). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a lampshade assembler, a compact assembler, an inspector/weigher/nut sorter, and an
ordinance weight setter. (Tr. 19).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on January 25, 2013. (Tr. 1-6). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action.
(Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 6).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Doc. 10, 11).
The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments
are presented in the parties’ briefs, and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.
This Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir.
2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind
would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. The ALJ's decision must be
affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d
964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). As long as there is substantial evidence in the record that supports the
Commissioner's decision, the Court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists
in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because the Court would have
decided the case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In other
words, if after reviewing the record it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the
evidence and one of those positions represents the findings of the ALJ, the decision of the ALJ
must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000).
It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden
of proving his disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one
year and that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir.2001); see also 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(1)(A),
1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines “physical or mental impairment” as “an impairment that results
from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(3),
1382(3)(c). A Plaintiff must show that his disability, not simply his impairment, has lasted for
at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner’s regulations require her to apply a five-step sequential evaluation
process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial
gainful activity since filing his claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or
mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal
an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past
relevant work; and, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national
economy given his age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Only
if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work
experience in light of his residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred by failing to consider
all of Plaintiff’s impairments in combination; 2) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff’s RFC;
and 3) the ALJ erred in failing to fully and fairly develop the record.
Combination of Impairments:
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider all of the claimant’s impairments
The ALJ stated that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, he considered “all of the claimant’s
impairments, including impairments that are not severe.” (Tr. 13). The ALJ further found that
the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically
equaled one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 14). Such language demonstrates the ALJ considered
the combined effect of Plaintiff’s impairments. Hajek v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 89, 92 (8th Cir. 1994).
The ALJ’s RFC Determination:
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). It is assessed using all relevant evidence in the record. Id. This includes medical
records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant’s own descriptions of
his limitations. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005); Eichelberger v.
Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). Limitations resulting from symptoms such as pain
are also factored into the assessment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). The United States Court of
Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that a “claimant’s residual functional capacity is a
medical question.” Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001). Therefore, an ALJ’s
determination concerning a claimant’s RFC must be supported by medical evidence that
addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace. Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642,
646 (8th Cir. 2003). “[T]he ALJ is [also] required to set forth specifically a claimant’s
limitations and to determine how those limitations affect his RFC.” Id.
In determining that Plaintiff maintained the RFC to perform sedentary work with
limitations, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of the examining and non-examining
agency medical consultants; Plaintiff’s subjective complaints; and his medical records. The ALJ
noted that consultative examiner, Dr. Mary J. Sontag, reported Plaintiff was capable of
performing activities of daily living; that Plaintiff demonstrated no problems in communicating
and interacting in a socially adequate manner; that Plaintiff exhibited no difficulty with coping
with the typical mental/cognitive demands of basic work-like tasks during the interview; that
Plaintiff exhibited no difficulty with attending and sustaining concentration; that Plaintiff
demonstrated the capacity to persist on the tasks of the evaluation; and that Plaintiff was able to
complete work-like tasks within an acceptable time frame during the evaluation.
The Court finds, based upon the well-stated reasons outlined in the Defendant’s brief,
that Plaintiff’s argument is without merit, and there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make
an informed decision. Plaintiff's capacity to perform sedentary work with limitations is also
supported by the fact that the medical evidence does not indicate that Plaintiff's examining
physicians placed restrictions on his activities that would preclude performing the RFC
determined. See Hutton v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 651, 655 (8th Cir. 1999) (lack of physician-imposed
restrictions militates against a finding of total disability). The ALJ also took Plaintiff’s obesity
into account when determining that he could perform sedentary work with limitations. Heino
v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 873, 881-882 (8th Cir. 2009) (when an ALJ references the claimant's obesity
during the claim evaluation process, such review may be sufficient to avoid reversal). Based on
the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC
determination for the relevant time period.
Subjective Complaints and Credibility Analysis:
The ALJ was required to consider all the evidence relating to Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints including evidence presented by third parties that relates to: (1) Plaintiff’s daily
activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of his pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating
factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of his medication; and (5) functional
restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). While an ALJ may
not discount a claimant’s subjective complaints solely because the medical evidence fails to
support them, an ALJ may discount those complaints where inconsistencies appear in the record
as a whole. Id. As the Eighth Circuit has observed, “Our touchstone is that [a claimant’s]
credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards, 314 F.3d at 966.
After reviewing the administrative record, and the Defendant’s well-stated reasons set
forth in her brief, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints, including the Polaski factors. The record indicated that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff was able to care for his roommate’s young child while the roommate was at
work; that Plaintiff could take care of his personal hygiene; that Plaintiff could prepare simple
meals and perform household chores; that Plaintiff could drive but did not currently have a
driver’s license; and that Plaintiff could shop both in the store and online.
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of limitation, he has
not established that he was unable to engage in any gainful activity during the relevant time
Accordingly, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s
conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not totally credible.
Fully and Fairly Develop the Record:
While an ALJ is required to develop the record fully and fairly, see Freeman v. Apfel,
208 F.3d 687, 692 (8th Cir.2000) (ALJ must order consultative examination only when it is
necessary for an informed decision), the record before the ALJ contained the evidence required
to make a full and informed decision regarding Plaintiff’s capabilities during the relevant time
period. See Strongson v. Barnhart, 361 F.3d 1066, 1071-72 (8th Cir.2004) (ALJ must develop
record fully and fairly to ensure it includes evidence from treating physician, or at least
examining physician, addressing impairments at issue).
Hypothetical Question to the Vocational Expert:
After thoroughly reviewing the hearing transcript along with the entire evidence of
record, the Court finds that the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the vocational expert fully set forth
the impairments which the ALJ accepted as true and which were supported by the record as a
whole. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 794 (8th Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the Court finds that
the vocational expert's opinion constitutes substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's conclusion
that during the relevant time period Plaintiff's impairments did not preclude him from performing
work as a lampshade assembler, a compact assembler, an inspector/weigher/nut sorter, and an
ordinance weight setter. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996)(testimony from
vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question constitutes substantial
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision
should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be
dismissed with prejudice.
DATED this 14th day of March, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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