Martin v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on August 18, 2014. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
JAMES WILLARD MARTIN
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, James Willard Martin, 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 claim for supplemental security income (SSI) under the provisions
of Title 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 filed his application for SSI on December 7, 2010, alleging an inability to work
due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), gastroeseophageal reflux disease
(GERD), and high blood pressure. (Tr. 24, 110-116, 153). An administrative hearing was held
on April 5, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 22-45).
By written decision dated June 1, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had an impairment
or combination of impairments that were severe - COPD. (Tr. 14). 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 that Plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R.
416.967(c). (Tr. 14). With the help of the vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a poultry laborer/egg gatherer. (Tr.
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on May 30, 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. (Docs. 11, 13).
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)(D). A Plaintiff must show that his disability, not simply his impairment, has lasted for
at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner’s regulations require him to apply a five-step sequential evaluation
process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant had engaged in substantial
gainful activity since filing his claim; (2) whether the claimant had a severe physical and/or
mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) met or equaled
an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevented the claimant from doing
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant was able to perform other work in the national
economy given his age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §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 (RFC). See McCoy v. Schneider, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §416.920.
Plaintiff raises the following issues on appeal: 1) The ALJ erred in failing to consider all
of Plaintiff’s impairments in combination; 2) The ALJ erred in his analysis and credibility
findings: 3) The ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform his past relevant
work as a poultry laborer/egg gatherer; 4) The ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff retained the RFC
to perform medium work; and 5) the ALJ erred in failing to fully and fairly develop the record.
Plaintiff’s Impairments in Combination:
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ disregarded Plaintiff’s testimony regarding difficulty with
physical exertion, difficulty walking, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, illiteracy, chest pain,
hypertension with episodes of dyspnea, hyponatremia, hyperlipidemia and GERD.
In his decision, the ALJ set forth the fact that at step two, he must determine whether
Plaintiff had “a medically determinable impairment that is ‘severe’ or a combination of
impairments that is ‘severe.’” (Tr. 13). He also stated that an impairment or combination of
impairments is “not severe” when medical and other evidence established only a slight
abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal
effect on an individual’s ability to work. (Tr. 13). The ALJ stated that at step three, he must
determine whether the Plaintiff’s “impairment or combination of impairments” meets or
medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in the relevant listings. (Tr. 13). The ALJ
concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment “or combination of impairments” that met
or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 14). This language
demonstrates that the ALJ considered the combined effect of Plaintiff’s impairments. See
Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 924 (8th Cir. 2011); Raney v. Barnhart, 396 F.3d 1007, 1011 (8th
The Court finds there is substantial evidence to support the fact that the ALJ considered
Plaintiff’s impairments in combination.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ disregarded his subjective complaints of pain in violation
of Eighth Circuit case law.
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 v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir.
In this case, the ALJ found that although Plaintiff’s medically determinable impairments
could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, Plaintiff’s statements concerning
the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the symptoms were not credible to the extent
they were inconsistent with the ALJ’s RFC assessment. (Tr. 16). The ALJ discussed Plaintiff’s
daily activities, noting that he spent about four hours outside daily and was able to drive, shop,
pay bills, and count change. He reported that Plaintiff watched television most of the time, and
Plaintiff reported that he took his dog outside and fed her, and had no problem with personal
care. (Tr. 15, 135-137). Plaintiff also reported on March 20, 2011, that he collected antiques and
“junk” two to three times a week and spent time with others, eating dinner and spending family
time every day. (Tr. 174).
On February 17, 2011, non-examining consultant, Dr. Jim Takach, completed a Case
Analysis form, opining that the medical records available did not establish a residual severe
somatic impairment. (Tr. 319). On April 13, 2011, non-examining consultant Dr. Bill F. Payne,
having reviewed all the evidence in the file, affirmed the February 17, 2011 assessment. (Tr.
320). On February 14, 2012, Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Leslie Stone, reported that
Plaintiff was complaining of having trouble with acid reflux, noting that Plaintiff had “been out
of all meds almost 1 year.” (Tr. 327). Plaintiff reported that he had worsening dyspnea over the
previous several months, with frequent cough and wheezing. However, Dr. Stone noted that
Plaintiff continued to smoke despite this. (Tr. 327). On March 5, 2012, Dr. Stone noted that
Plaintiff was trying to cut down on cigarettes, but there is no indication as to how much he had
cut down. (Tr. 321). Upon general examination, Dr. Stone reported that with respect to Plaintiff’s
lungs, “prolonged expiratory phase, clear to auscultation bilaterally, no wheezes/rhonchi/rales.”
The ALJ noted that in October of 2010, Plaintiff reported smoking two packs of
cigarettes daily, and was still smoking as of March of 2012. (Tr. 16, 321). Plaintiff’s COPD was
reported as being stable on medications on December 6, 2010. (Tr. 299). As stated earlier, on
February 14, 2012, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Stone that he had been out of all medications almost
for one year. (Tr. 327). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he borrowed money to get his
medications filled that were prescribed, and that he took his medicines every day. (Tr. 29). By
way of affidavit dated July 16, 2012, Plaintiff reported that the only reason at any time that he
would be non-compliant with taking his medication was that he could not afford the medication
because he could not work. (Tr. 191). However, Plaintiff has not presented any evidence that he
was refused treatment or failed to obtain medication for financial reasons. See Murphy v.
Sullivan, 953 F.2d 383, 386-87 (8th Cir. 1992)(there was no evidence the claimant had been
denied medical care because of her financial condition). In addition, Plaintiff was somehow able
to continue to afford to smoke up to two packs of cigarettes per day.
Based upon the foregoing, the Court here finds there is substantial evidence to support
the ALJ’s credibility findings.
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.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ completely disregarded his testimony regarding his physical
limitations as well as the findings and opinions of his treating and evaluating physicians. The
Court first notes that on December 6, 2010, Plaintiff’s COPD was reported by Dr. Leslie Stone
as stable on his then current medications. (Tr. 299). On February 14, 2011, a Pulmonary Function
Report revealed severe air flow obstruction primarily involving the smaller airways with no
significant bronchodilator response. (Tr. 314). On February 14, 2012, Dr. Stone reported that
Plaintiff was complaining of having trouble with acid reflux and that he had been out of
medications for almost a year. (Tr. 327). In addition, Dr. Stone reported that Plaintiff complained
of worsening dyspnea, frequent coughing and wheezing over the previous several months, but
continued to smoke despite the complaints. (Tr. 327).
The ALJ reported in his decision that when Plaintiff originally presented to the
Community Clinic of Siloam Springs in late 2010, he was started on medication for COPD
control and for smoking cessation class. (Tr. 16-17, 294-296). In December of 2010, Plaintiff’s
COPD was stable, he was walking for exercise, and had no cough, wheezing, or fever. (Tr. 299).
The ALJ also reported that when Plaintiff returned to the Community Clinic in February
of 2012, he had been out of medications for about a year and that he had been non-compliant
with follow-up instructions. (Tr. 17).
It is clear from the record that Plaintiff was non-compliant with prescribed treatment and
it was proper for the ALJ to consider this. See Choate v. Barnhart, 457 F.3d 865, 872 (8th Cir.
2006)(holding that in addition to the results of objective medical tests, an ALJ may properly
consider the claimant’s noncompliance with a treating physician’s direction, including failing
to take prescription medications, seek treatment, and quit smoking).
Plaintiff argues that he was unable to afford his medications. As indicated earlier, there
is no evidence Plaintiff was denied medications for financial reasons, and Plaintiff was able to
afford to continue smoking up to two packs of cigarettes per day. Furthermore, none of Plaintiff’s
physicians placed any restrictions on him that would preclude him from performing at medium
Based upon the foregoing, as well as for those reasons given in Defendant’s wellreasoned brief, the Court finds there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC
Failure to Fully and Fairly Develop the Record:
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have obtained a Physical RFC Assessment. The ALJ
has a duty to fully and fairly develop the record. See Frankl v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 935, 938 (8th
Cir. 1995); Freeman v. Apfel, 208 F.3d 687, 692 (8th Cir. 2000). This is particularly true when
Plaintiff is not represented by counsel. Payton v. Shalala, 25 FG.3d 684, 686 (8th Cir. 1994).
This can be done by re-contacting medical sources and by ordering additional consultative
examinations, if necessary. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512. The ALJ’s duty to fully and fairly
develop the record is independent of Plaintiff’s burden to press her case. Vossen v. Astrue, 612
F.3d 1011, 1016 (8th Cir. 2010). However, the ALJ is not required to function as Plaintiff’s
substitute counsel, but only to develop a reasonably complete record. See Shannon v. Chater,
54 F.3d 484, 488 (8th Cir. 1995)(“reversal due to failure to develop the record is only warranted
where such failure is unfair or prejudicial”). “The regulations do not require the Secretary or the
ALJ to order a consultative evaluation of every alleged impairment. They simply grant the ALJ
the authority to do so if the existing medical sources do not contain sufficient evidence to make
a determination.” Matthews v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 423, 424 (8th Cir. 1989). The Court must
determine if the lack of a physical consultative examination is unfair or prejudicial. Mans v.
Colvin, No. 2:13-cv-2103, 2014 WL 3689797 at *4 (W.D. Ark., July 24, 2014).
As noted by Defendant, Plaintiff’s functional limitations were fully developed. The
records indicate that Plaintiff’s COPD was stable on medication, and the ALJ discussed the
objective medical records in this case. In addition, Plaintiff has not presented any evidence
showing that had the ALJ obtained a physical RFC assessment or consultative physical
examination or elicited additional information from his physicians, the ALJ would have arrived
at a different decision, and Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate either that the record was not fully
developed or that he was prejudiced by any perceived failure to develop the record.
Based upon the foregoing, as well as for those well-stated reasons given in Defendant’s
brief, the Court finds there is substantial evidence to support the fact that the ALJ did not fail to
fully and fairly developed the record.
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the Court finds substantial evidence
supporting the ALJ’s decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision is hereby
affirmed. The Plaintiff’s Complaint should be, and is hereby, dismissed with prejudice.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 18ty day of August, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HONORABLE ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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