Hill v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on February 10, 2015. (rg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
JASON R. HILL
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Jason R. Hill, 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) 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. §
Plaintiff protectively filed his applications for DIB and SSI on November 8, 2010,
alleging disability since September 6, 2009, due to “Multiple back and neck injuries.” (Tr. 129130, 133-139, 159-160, 164). An administrative hearing was held on April 27, 2012, at which
Plaintiff appeared with counsel and he and his wife testified. (Tr. 25-65).
By written decision dated September 21, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant
time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe annular tear of the L4-L5 vertebra, osteoarthrosis, and chronic pain. (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. 14). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the
residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(b)
and 416.967(b). (Tr. 15). With the help of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined
Plaintiff was not capable of performing his past relevant work. (Tr. 19). The ALJ also found that
based upon Medical-Vocational Rule 202.18, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, and work
experience, Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 20).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied the request on October 21, 2013. (Tr. 1-4). 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. 11, 12).
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 RFC. See McCoy v. Schneider, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir.
1982); 20 C.F.R. §416.920.
There are two issues that concern the Court. First, non-examining consultant, Dr. Julius
Petty, completed a Physical RFC Assessment on December 16, 2010, wherein he found Plaintiff
would be capable of light work, but could only occasionally stoop and crouch. (Tr. 305, 306,
311). In his decision, the ALJ found that Dr. Petty’s opinion regarding the Plaintiff’s postural
activities “appears to be based on his subjective complaints.” (Tr. 18). The ALJ found that the
evidence showed inconsistencies in Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, and that such
inconsistencies lessened the credibility of Dr. Petty’s opinion. (Tr. 18). The ALJ therefore did
not include Dr. Petty’s limitations in his RFC.
A review of the transcript indicates that Dr. Petty considered more than Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints. In fact, Dr. Petty reported that “[c]onsidering the MER, ADL’s and pain
report a RFC of light with postural limitations is retained.” (Tr. 311). Clearly, Dr. Petty
considered the medical records, Plaintiff’s activities of daily living, and complaints of pain.
Next, Dr. Ted Honghiran, who specializes in orthopaedics, examined Plaintiff at agency
request, on May 21, 2012, and completed a Medical Source Statement of Ability to Do WorkRelated Activities on the same date. (Tr. 412-413, 414-420). Dr. Honghiran reported that
Plaintiff moved slowly, and that the range of motion of the lumbar spine showed he could flex
45 degrees, bend side to side 25 degrees on both sides with pain and muscle spasms, and that the
examination of the cervical spine showed minimal limitation of cervical spine with minimal pain
on range of motion. (Tr. 413). In his Medical Source Statement, Dr. Honghiran found that
Plaintiff could sit for 4 hours total in an 8 hour workday; stand for a total of 2 hours total in an
8 hour workday; and could walk for 2 hours total in an 8 hour work day.1 (Tr. 415). He
additionally found that Plaintiff could occasionally be exposed to unprotected heights and
moving mechanical parts, and could occasionally climb ladders or scaffolds. (Tr. 417-418).
In his decision, the ALJ determined that as for the postural and other limitations found
by Dr. Honghiran, those opinions were given little weight and not taken into account in the RFC.
However, the Court is of the opinion that he failed to give sufficient reasons for disregarding all
of the limitations.
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.
The Court is of the opinion that the ALJ failed to give sufficient reason to disregard the
Light work requires the ability to stand and walk “for a total of six hours out of an eight-hour work day. See
Social Security Ruling 83-10.
limitations found by Dr. Honghiran and Dr. Petty and therefore, there is not sufficient evidence
to support his RFC finding that Plaintiff could perform a full range of light work without any
limitations. Accordingly, this matter is remanded in order for the ALJ to re-evaluate Plaintiff’s
RFC. In so doing, the ALJ should send interrogatories to Dr. Honghrihan asking for explanation
of the limitations he imposed, or have Plaintiff examined by another orthopaedic surgeon who
will provide another RFC assessment.
Accordingly, the Court concludes that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial
evidence, and therefore, should be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration
pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
ORDERED this 10th day of February, 2015.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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