Harrison v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on December 11, 2014. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
MICHAEL E. HARRISON
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Michael Eugene Harrison, 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 period of disability and disability insurance benefits
(DIB) under the provisions of Title II 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 application for DIB on November 5, 2010, alleging
an inability to work since April 3, 2010, due to open left tibia/fibia fractures; an open left first
metatarsal fracture; a closed head injury, a concussion; a flail chest wound with multiple rib
fractures; a pulmonary lung contusion; pheumothorax; a spinal neck injury, disk compression
of spine; and double vision, improving. (Tr. 133, 155). An administrative hearing was held on
March 22, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 30-78).
By written decision dated August 24, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled
prior to January 3, 2012, but that Plaintiff became disabled on that date and remained disabled
through the date of the decision. (Tr. 11). The ALJ found since the alleged onset date of
disability, April 3, 2010, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were
severe. (Tr. 13). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
status post open reduction internal fixation (ORIF) of the left tibia, fibula, and metatarsal
fractures; post-traumatic degenerative joint disease of the shoulder, cervical and lumbar areas;
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); a pain disorder with both psychological factors and a
general medical condition; and a cognitive disorder, not otherwise specified. However, after
reviewing all of the evidence presented, the ALJ determined that since the alleged onset date,
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 since his alleged onset date, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC)
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except he is limited
to frequent rotation, flexion, or extension of the neck; occasional overhead
reaching; and no concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures. The claimant
is limited to work involving simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, requiring only
simple, work-related decisions, with few, if any workplace changes, and no more
than occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public.
(Tr. 14). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that prior to January 3, 2012,
Plaintiff could perform work as a document preparer, an addresser, an assembly and production
worker, and a machine operator. (Tr. 20). The ALJ determined that on January 3, 2012,
Plaintiff’s age category changed rendering him disabled under Medical-Vocational Guidelines.
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on November 7, 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. 4).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 11, 13).
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. 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.
Of particular concern to the undersigned is 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). A disability
claimant has the burden of establishing his or her RFC. See Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d
731, 737 (8th Cir.2004). “The ALJ determines a claimant’s RFC based on all relevant evidence
in the record, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the
claimant’s own descriptions of his or her limitations.” Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584,
591 (8th Cir. 2004); Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005). 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).
In the present case, the ALL determined that Plaintiff had the following severe mental
impairments: PTSD; a pain disorder with both psychological factors and a general medical
condition; and a cognitive disorder, not otherwise specified. A review of the record revealed
that Plaintiff did not seek treatment for depression and anxiety; however, Plaintiff indicated that
he had some cognitive slowing after the accident. In determining Plaintiff’s mental RFC for the
relevant time period of April 3, 2010, through August 24, 2012, the only medical professional
to give an opinion on Plaintiff’s mental functioning was Dr. Richard D. Back, who examined
Plaintiff for the first and only time on May 3, 2012, a date after the date Plaintiff was found to
be disabled. (Tr. 704). Dr. Back opined Plaintiff had moderate limitations with day to day
adaptive functioning, and communicating and interacting in a socially adequate manner; and
marked limitations in completing work-like tasks within an acceptable time frame. (Tr. 711).
It is noteworthy that Dr. Back did not have all of Plaintiff’s records before him when assessing
Plaintiff’s functioning, and that Dr. Back did not indicate the onset date for the limitations he
found with Plaintiff’s mental functioning. The record is void of any medical source statement
from either an examining or non-examining medical professional opining as to Plaintiff’s mental
capabilities for the time period of April 3, 2010, through January 3, 2012, the date the ALJ
determined Plaintiff was disabled. Accordingly, the Court finds remand necessary so that the
ALJ can more fully and fairly develop the record regarding Plaintiff’s mental RFC.
On remand, the ALJ is directed to address interrogatories to a mental medical
professional asking the medical professional to review Plaintiff's medical records; to complete
a mental RFC assessment regarding Plaintiff's capabilities during the time period in question;
and to give the objective basis for the opinion so that an informed decision can be made
regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities on a sustained basis.
The Court further notes that the medical evidence is also somewhat ambiguous with
regard to Plaintiff's physical limitations and his RFC. On remand, the ALJ is directed to address
interrogatories to an examining physician, asking the physician to review Plaintiff's medical
records and to complete a RFC assessment regarding Plaintiff's capabilities during the time
period in question.
With this evidence, the ALJ should then re-evaluate Plaintiff's RFC and specifically list
in a hypothetical to a vocational expert any limitations that are indicated in the RFC assessments
and supported by the evidence.
Accordingly, the Court concludes that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial
evidence, and therefore, the denial of benefits to the Plaintiff should be reversed and this matter
should be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration pursuant to sentence four of
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
DATED this 11th day of December, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?