White v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on December 1, 2015. (rg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
AMANDA KAY WHITE
CIVIL NO. 14-5229
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Amanda K. White, 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 her claims for 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 her current applications for DIB and SSI on December 1,
2009, alleging an inability to work since February 1, 2007, due to a borderline personality
disorder, a generalized anxiety disorder, and depression. (Tr. 232, 237, 286). For DIB
purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured status through December 31, 2011. (Tr. 89, 242). An
administrative hearing was held on March 29, 2011, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel
and testified. (Tr. 34-56).
In a written decision dated April 21, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the
residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform unskilled work at all exertional levels. (Tr. 8997). Plaintiff requested review of the unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council. The
Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's April 21, 2011, decision, and remanded Plaintiff's case
back to the ALJ on November 30, 2012. (Tr. 101-106). Supplemental administrative hearings
were held on April 5, 2013, and May 14, 2013. (Tr. 57-73, 74-80).
By written decision dated June 10, 2013, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 17).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: a mood disorder,
and a personality disorder. (Tr. 17). 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. 18). The ALJ found Plaintiff maintained the RFC to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following
nonexertional limitations: the claimant can understand, remember and carry out
simple, routine and repetitive tasks. She can respond to the usual work
situations, routine work changes and supervision that is simple, direct and
concrete. She can occasionally interact with supervisors, co-workers and the
(Tr. 20). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform a
representative of occupations that included a warehouse worker, a hand packager, and a power
screwdriver operator. (Tr. 27-28, 355-361).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on May 30, 2014. (Tr. 1-5). 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. 9, 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 her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted
at least one year and that prevents her 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 her disability, not simply her 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 her 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 her 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 her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v.
Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
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 ALJ determined Plaintiff maintained the RFC to perform work
at all exertional levels. The ALJ further found Plaintiff had certain nonexertional limitations.
After reviewing the record, the Court is troubled by the ALJ’s failure to address Plaintiff’s
Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 02–1p provides that the Social Security Administration
considers “obesity to be a medically determinable impairment and reminds adjudicators to
consider the effects when evaluating disability. The provisions also remind adjudicators that
the combined effects of obesity with other impairments can be greater than the effects of each
of the impairments considered separately.” SSR 02–lp. The ruling also instructs “adjudicators
to consider the effects of obesity not only under the listings but also when assessing a claim at
other steps of the sequential evaluation process, including when assessing an individual's
residual functional capacity.” Id.
A review of the record reveals that despite being instructed to address Plaintiff’s obesity
by the Appeal Council, the ALJ failed to discuss Plaintiff’s obesity in the June 10, 2013,
administrative decision. The Court recognizes that the failure to address obesity may not be
reversible error in each case. However, the facts in this case require the ALJ to address
Plaintiff’s obesity. A review of the medical evidence reveals that Plaintiff is five feet six inches
tall, and that her weight varied between 243 pounds and 274 pounds during the relevant time
period. While Plaintiff did not allege obesity as an impairment when she applied for disability,
Plaintiff testified at the April 5, 2013, administrative hearing, that she had a difficult time
standing due to her weight. (Tr. 69). After reviewing the record, the Court believes remand is
necessary for the ALJ to more fully and fairly develop the record regarding Plaintiff’s obesity.
On remand, the ALJ is directed to address interrogatories to a medical professional
requesting that said physician review Plaintiff's medical records; complete a RFC assessment
regarding Plaintiff's capabilities during the time period in question; and 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 ALJ may also order a consultative examination,
in which, the consultative examiner should be asked to review the medical evidence of record,
perform examinations and appropriate testing needed to properly diagnosis Plaintiff's
condition(s), and complete a medical assessment of Plaintiff's abilities to perform work related
activities. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.917.
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 1st day of December, 2015.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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