Wakefield v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on September 30, 2014. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Alex Wakefield, 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 child’s insurance benefits (CDB) and supplemental
security income (SSI) 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 CDB and SSI on June 23, 2011,
alleging an inability to work since June 22, 2011, due to Asperger’s Syndrome, attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations. (Tr. 148, 190, 197).
An administrative hearing was held on July 25, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel
and testified. (Tr. 25-64).
By written decision dated November 1, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had an
impairment or combination of impairments that were severe - pervasive developmental disorder,
ADHD, mathematics disorder, borderline intellectual functioning (BIF), depressive disorder, not
otherwise specified (NOS), and anxiety disorder, NOS. (Tr. 12). 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. 13). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following
nonexertional limitations: he is able to perform work where interpersonal
contact is incidental to the work performed and does not involve contact with
the general public; the complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote,
with few variables and use of little judgment; and the supervision required
is simple, direct, and concrete.
(Tr. 15). With the help of the vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that during the
relevant time period, Plaintiff would be able to perform such jobs as a dishwasher, machine
tender, and assembler. (Tr. 60-61).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on August 14, 2013. (Tr. 2-4). 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. 12, 13).
The Court has reviewed th 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 her 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. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.
Plaintiff raises the following arguments on appeal: 1) The ALJ erred by failing to
properly evaluate the opinion evidence in the record; and 2) The ALJ erred because substantial
evidence does not support the ALJ’s credibility finding. (Doc. 12).
The SSA regulations set forth how the ALJ weighs medical opinions. The regulations
provide that "unless [the ALJ] give[s] a treating source's opinion controlling weight . . . [the
ALJ] consider[s] all of the following factors in deciding the weight [to] give to any medical
opinion”: (1) examining relationship, (2) treating relationship; (3) supportability of the opinion;
(4) consistency; (5) specialization; and (6) "any factors [the applicant] or others bring[s] to [the
ALJ's] attention." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d).
The Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ committed legal error by failing to explain why the
opinion of the mental consultative examiner, Dr. Scott McCarty, Ph.D.,was not adopted. (Doc.
12). In the decision, the ALJ included a detailed synopsis of the examination and medical
opinion. (Tr. 16). Dr. McCarty stated that Plaintiff exhibited good eye contact during the
evaluation, which was in contrast to his mother’s reports. (Tr. 16, 265). He added that the
Plaintiff was calm and cooperative and exhibited good testing attitude and persistence. (Tr. 16,
Dr. McCarty diagnosed him with pervasive developmental disorder NOS by history,
ADHD, combined type, mathematics disorder, and BIF. (Tr. 16, 266). The Plaintiff’s mother
reported he could perform activities of daily living such as dressing, bathing, and driving, and
he was learning how to cook, shop, and use a checkbook. (Tr. 16, 266-267). Dr. McCarty
acknowledged Plaintiff’s somewhat limited interpersonal skills would result in limitations at
times. However, he found Plaintiff communicated and interacted in a reasonably socially
adequate, intelligible, and effective manner. (Tr. 16, 267). Plaintiff’s borderline comprehension
suggested he would have mild to moderate difficult understanding, remembering, and carrying
out instructions. (Tr. 16, 267). Nevertheless, Plaintiff sustained sufficient ability to attend and
sustain concentration on basic tasks and persistence at tasks to completion. (Tr. 16, 267). Dr.
McCarty also found the Plaintiff had a good processing speed in order to complete tasks in an
adequate time frame. (Tr. 16, 267).
The Court disagrees with the Plaintiff’s arguments that Dr. McCarty’s opinion directly
conflicts with the RFC and that the ALJ implicitly rejected Dr. McCarty’s opinion. (Doc. 12).
The Court finds the ALJ properly considered Dr. McCarty’s opinion. The severe impairments
determined by the ALJ include the same impairments diagnosed by Dr. McCarty. (Tr. 12, 266).
The Court also finds that Dr. McCarty’s evaluation of the Plaintiff’s adaptive functioning does
not preclude the performance of unskilled work. See Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 738
(8th Cir. 2004) (ALJ properly relied on consultative examinations that are consistent with treating
Regarding the opinion provided by Ms. Leslie Johnson, M.S., L.P.E., and Dr. Letitia
Hitz, Ph.D., examiners for Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, the Plaintiff alleges the ALJ
committed legal error by failing to explain why their opinion was not adopted. (Doc. 12). The
Court again finds the ALJ included a detailed synopsis of the examination and medical opinion.
(Tr. 16). They wrote that the Plaintiff was cooperative and put forth good effort during testing.
(Tr. 16, 306). The Plaintiff reported that he felt he had outgrown many of his ADHD
symptoms. (Tr. 16, 306-307). Test results revealed he was functioning in the below average to
average range of intellectual and academic ability. (Tr. 16, 309). Ms. Johnson and Dr. Hitz
found the Plaintiff was capable of performing or being trained to perform a variety of jobs with
on-the-job training or vocational-technical school. (Tr. 16, 309). They recommended extensive
vocational guidance and counseling, and in their opinion, provided these services, Plaintiff may
reasonably be expected to sustain independent function by means of competitive employment.
(Tr. 16, 309).
The Court again disagrees with the Plaintiff’s arguments that Ms. Johnson and Dr. Hitz’s
opinion directly conflicts with the RFC and that the ALJ implicitly rejected their opinion. (Doc.
12). In fact, their opinion states the Plaintiff is capable of working and it does not conflict with
the RFC of unskilled work.
Regarding the opinion provided by Ms. Courtney Brian, L.C.S.W., and Dr. Cynthia
Hughes, D.O., the Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred by rejecting their opinion. (Doc. 12). Ms.
Brian is a medical source that provided counseling to the Plaintiff, but she is not considered an
“acceptable medical source.” See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502, 416.902; S.S.R. 06-03p. Dr. Hughes
is the Plaintiff’s treating primary care physician. In the opinion, she found the Plaintiff had
marked limitations in multiple areas with one example being his ability to understand,
remember, and carry out very short and simple instructions and detailed instructions. (Tr. 17,
Generally, a treating physician's opinion is given more weight than other sources in a
disability proceeding. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). Indeed, when the treating
physician's opinion is supported by proper medical testing, and is not inconsistent with other
substantial evidence in the record, the ALJ must give the opinion controlling weight. Id.
“However, [a]n ALJ may discount or even disregard the opinion of a treating physician where
other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence, or where
a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such
opinions.” Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010) (alteration in original) (internal
quotation omitted). Ultimately, the ALJ must “give good reasons” to explain the weight given
the treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); Holmstrom v.
Massanari, 270 F.3d 715, 720 (8th Cir. 2001).
In the decision, the ALJ found that the opinion provided by Ms. Brian and Dr. Hughes
was not credible. (Tr. 17). The Court finds the ALJ properly discounted their opinion by stating
that there was simply no objective findings in any of the medical evidence of record which
supported such severe limits. (Tr. 17). The Court has reviewed the entire record and concurs
with the ALJ. The ALJ also discounted the opinion by noting the Plaintiff testified that Ms.
Brian checked the boxes and then took the assessment to Dr. Hughes for her signature, so in
essence the opinion is by the counselor and not by Dr. Hughes. (Tr. 17, 29). In light of the
Plaintiff’s testimony and the lack of evidentiary support for their opinion, the Court finds in this
instance that the ALJ properly considered all of the evidence in determining the lack of
credibility of the opinion provided by Ms. Brian and Dr. Hughes.
Regarding the Mental RFC opinion provided by state agency consultant, Dr. Susan
Daugherty, Ph.D., the Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred by giving substantial weight to the opinion.
(Doc. 12). In her opinion, Dr. Daugherty found that the Plaintiff was able to perform work
where interpersonal contact is incidental to work performed, e.g. assembly work; complexity of
tasks is learned and performed by rote, few variables, little judgment; [and] supervision required
is simple, direct, and concrete (unskilled). (Tr. 274). The ALJ gave the opinion substantial
weight. (Tr. 18).
The Court finds in this instance that the ALJ properly considered all of the evidence in
determining the Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity in light of Plaintiff’s testimony and the
lack of evidentiary support for his allegations. See Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d, 1040, 1043 (8th
Cir. 2007) (the medical evidence, state agency physician opinions, and claimant’s own testimony
were sufficient to determine RFC); Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F3d 801, 807-08 (8th Cir. 2004)
(medical evidence, state agency physicians’ assessments, and claimant’s reported activities of
daily living supported RFC finding). The Plaintiff also argues Dr. Daughtery’s opinion conflicts
with Dr. McCarty’s findings. (Doc. 12). Earlier, the Court found that Dr. McCarty’s opinion
does not conflict with the RFC, and therefore his findings do not conflict with Dr. Daughtery’s
opinion. Based on the foregoing, the ALJ did not err in evaluating the opinion evidence in the
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.
The Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred because substantial evidence does not support the
ALJ’s credibility finding. (Doc. 12). More specifically, the Plaintiff argues the ALJ committed
legal error by failing to consider that Plaintiff, despite treatment, had not effectively managed
his symptoms. (Doc. 12). In the decision, the ALJ found several reasons to discount the
Plaintiff’s credibility. For example, he was able to complete high school without repeating
grades, despite his history of treatment for ADHD with oppositional defiance and his
classification as a special education student. (Tr. 15). In addition, his activities of daily living
were numerous, with his ability to tend to his personal care, prepare simple meals, perform
household chores, drive a car, go shopping, watch television, play games, go to the movies, use
a computer, and visit with others. (Tr. 164-171). The Court also finds after a review of the
medical records that the argument that his treatment was not effective is unfounded. For
instance, on July 12, 2012, Ms. Brian wrote that the Plaintiff benefits from medications and
therapy. (Tr. 382-383).
Because the ALJ’s credibility determination was supported by good reasons and
substantial evidence, the Court concludes that it is entitled to deference. See Cox v. Barnhart,
471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006). Based on the foregoing, as well as those reasons given in
Defendant’s well-stated brief, the Court finds that there is substantial evidence to support the
ALJ’s credibility findings.
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the Court finds substantial evidence
supporting the ALJ’s decision denying the Plaintiff’s 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 30th day of September, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HONORABLE ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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