Champlin v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on December 21, 2015. (rg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
JENNY R. CHAMPLIN
CIVIL NO. 14-5307
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Jenny R. Champlin, 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 June 13, 2011,
alleging an inability to work since May 7, 2011, due to spinal stenosis and bulging discs, severe
decreased range of motion of the lower extremities, nerve damage, kidney damage, and chronic
fatigue. (Tr. 119, 126, 172). An administrative video hearing was held on January 29, 2013,
at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 29-59).
By written decision dated July 8, 2013, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 14).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: herniated lumbar
disc, avascular necrosis of the bilateral hips, status post bilateral total hip replacements with
infection, and morbid obesity. 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. 16). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a)
except that she can occasionally climb, balance, crawl, kneel, stoop, and crouch.
(Tr. 16). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a small production machine operator, a small product assembler, and a small product
inspector. (Tr. 21-22).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on July 31, 2014. (Tr. 1-4). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc.
1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 11). Both
parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 18, 19).
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
sedentary work with limitations. While the Court finds substantial evidence to support the
ALJ’s determination regarding Plaintiff’s mental impairments and her mental RFC, after
reviewing the entire record the Court cannot say the same about Plaintiff’s alleged physical
impairments. In making the RFC determination, the ALJ gave great weight to the opinion of
Dr. Jonathan Norcross, a non-examining medical consultant, who in April of 2012, opined
Plaintiff could perform sedentary work that required only occasional climbing, balancing,
stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. (Tr. 779-786). The Court would note that the
ALJ failed to address a statement in Dr. Norcross’ opinion that appears to indicate Plaintiff
would be able to perform sedentary work as of February 7, 2013. (Tr. 786). A review of the
medical evidence further reveals that Plaintiff underwent surgical procedures on her hips after
April of 2012, and in April of 2013, Plaintiff was instructed to use a walker (Tr. 1113). While
the Court realizes this restriction was indicated after a surgical procedure, other medical
evidence reveals that Plaintiff used a single point cane to ambulate. (Tr. 1096, 1101). Plaintiff
also testified at the administrative hearing that she used a cane or walker to ambulate. (Tr. 40).
After reviewing the record, the Court believes remand is necessary for the ALJ to more fully
and fairly develop the record regarding Plaintiff’s hip impairments.
On remand, the ALJ is directed to address interrogatories to a medical professional
requesting that said physician review all of 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. This opinion should also address
whether Plaintiff needs an assistive device to ambulate. 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 21st day of December, 2015.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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