Pierson v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on January 25, 2017. (rg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 15-5280
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Paula Pierson, 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 a period of disability, 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 applications for DIB and SSI on March 6, 2012. (ECF
No. 13, p. 15, 181). In her applications, Plaintiff alleges disability due to carpal tunnel
syndrome, nerve damage at C7 and L5, bipolar disorder, a right knee injury, and
hyperthyroidism. (ECF No. 13, p. 14, 202). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of January 1, 2010.
(ECF No. 13, p. 14, 181). These applications were denied initially and again upon
reconsideration. (ECF No. 13, pp. 86, 89, 98, 100).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her denied applications,
and this hearing request was granted. (ECF No. 13, p. 103). Plaintiff’s administrative hearing
was held on September 9, 2013, in Fort Smith, Arkansas (ECF No. 13, pp. 35-81). Plaintiff
appeared via video teleconference from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and was represented by Greg
Thurman. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Zach Langley testified at this hearing. Id.
At the time of this hearing, Plaintiff was forty-six (46) years old, which is defined as a “younger
person” under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). (ECF No. 13, p. 39). As for her level of
education, Plaintiff graduated with a high school diploma. (ECF No. 13, pp. 39-40).
After this hearing, on February 28, 2014, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision
denying Plaintiff’s applications for DIB and SSI. (ECF No. 13, pp. 12-29). In this decision, the
ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2016.
(ECF No. 13, p. 17, Finding 1). The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful
Activity (“SGA”) since January 1, 2010, her alleged onset date. (ECF No. 13, p. 17, Finding
osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease of the right knee status post-surgery, degenerative disc
disease of the cervical spine status post-surgery, mild osteoarthritis/degenerative disc disease
of the lumbar spine, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post-right carpal tunnel release
surgery, bipolar disorder, and adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depression. (ECF
No. 13, pp. 17-18, Finding 3). Despite being severe, the ALJ determined these impairments
did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the Listings of Impairments in
Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Part 404 (“Listings”). (ECF No. 13, pp. 18-19, Finding 4).
The ALJ then considered Plaintiff’s Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (ECF No.
13, pp. 19-27, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found
her claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff
retained the RFC to perform:
sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she
is limited to no climbing, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; only occasional
balancing and stooping; only occasional overhead work bilaterally; and
frequent but not constant handling and fingering bilaterally. She must also avoid
concentrated exposure to hazards, including driving as part of work. The
claimant is further able to perform work involving simple, routine, repetitive
tasks, with incidental interpersonal contact and simple, direct, and concrete
Id. at 19.
The ALJ then determined Plaintiff was unable to perform her Past Relevant Work
(“PRW”). (ECF No. 13, p. 28, Finding 6). The VE testified at the administrative hearing
regarding this issue. (ECF No. 13, pp. 73-79). Based on Plaintiff’s age, education, work
experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there were jobs existing in significant numbers in
the national economy Plaintiff could perform, such as a call out operator, a bonder, semiconductor, and as a surveillance system monitor. (ECF No. 13, pp. 28-29, Finding 10). Because
jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy which Plaintiff can perform, the ALJ
also determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from January
1, 2010, through February 28, 2014, the date of the ALJ’s decision. (ECF No. 13, p. 29, Finding
Thereafter, on April 24, 2014, Plaintiff requested a review by the Appeals Council
(ECF. No. 13, pp. 249-51). The Appeals Council denied this request on September 10, 2015.
(ECF No. 13, pp. 6-9). On November 12, 2015, Plaintiff filed the present appeal with this
Court. (ECF No. 1). The Parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on November 12,
2015. (ECF No. 5). This case is now ready for decision.
This Court’s role is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner’s findings. Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1015 (8th Cir. 2010). 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. Teague v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 611, 614 (8th
Cir. 2011). We must affirm the ALJ’s decision if the record contains substantial evidence to
support it. Blackburn v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 853, 858 (8th Cir. 2014). 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.
Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015). 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, we must affirm the ALJ’s decision. Id.
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), 1382c(a)(3)(D). A
Plaintiff must show that her disability, not simply her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve
consecutive months. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).
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 his age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4). Only if she reaches the final stage does the fact finder consider 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), abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v.
Apfel, 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) whether there is substantial evidence
from the record as a whole to support the ALJ’s decision that Plaintiff is not disabled; and 2)
whether the ALJ erred in failing to assign proper weight to the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating
physician in accordance with Social Security Regulations.
Medical Opinion of Dr. Hawk
The ALJ did not commit error by assigning Dr. Hawk’s opinion less than controlling,
or even little, weight. As we have frequently noted, “treating physician opinions may receive
limited weight if they are conclusory or inconsistent with the record.” Julin v. Colvin, 826 F.3d
1082, 1088 (8th Cir. 2016). The ALJ may afford a treating source's opinion "controlling
weight" if that opinion "'is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the
applicant's] record.'" Wagner v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 842, 848–49 (alteration in original) (quoting
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). "[W]hile a treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to
'substantial weight,' such an opinion does not 'automatically control' because the hearing
examiner must evaluate the record as a whole." Id. at 849 (quoting Wilson v. Apfel, 172 F.3d
539, 542 (8th Cir. 1999)). When a treating physician's opinion is in conflict with other
substantial medical evidence, then the ALJ may afford less weight to that physician's opinion.
Id. (citing Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1013–14 (8th Cir. 2000)).
The ALJ noted Dr. Hawk’s medical source statement was inconsistent with his own
treatment records concerning Plaintiff’s limitations. (ECF No. 13, pp. 26-27). Dr. Hawk’s
medical source statement was completed on a check box style form and cited no objective
findings upon which Dr. Hawk’s opinion was based other than Plaintiff’s own subjective
complaints of pain and limitation. (ECF No. 13, pp. 829-35); See Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d
790 (8th Cir. 2012); Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010); Holmstrom v.
Massanari, 270 F.3d 715, 721 (8th Cir. 2001) (checklist format, generality, and incompleteness
of the treating physicians’ assessments limited their evidentiary value). The only supporting
documentation provided by Dr. Hawk was a pain inventory sheet completed by Plaintiff and
treatment notes from July 10, 2013, which list Plaintiff’s own subjective complaints and her
medications. (ECF No. 13, pp. 833-35). Dr. Hawk’s examination on the same day revealed no
abnormal findings. (ECF No. 13, p. 833). Dr. Hawk’s physical examinations of Plaintiff
routinely contained only normal findings, and specifically noted on June 23, 2012, that despite
wearing a brace on her right knee, Plaintiff exhibited full range of motion in both knees with
only some laxity, slight to mild effusion, moderate grinding, and no drawer or pivot shift. (ECF
No. 13, pp. 678-85, 833-35, 847-52). The ALJ’s cited inconsistency between Dr. Hawk’s
opinion and his own treatment records is alone sufficient to discount Dr. Hawk’s opinion. See
Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790-91 (8th Cir. 2005) (“While the ALJ also found Dr.
Prihoda’s opinion to be internally inconsistent, we need not comment on that, as an appropriate
finding of inconsistency with other evidence alone is sufficient to discount the opinion”).
Accordingly, I find the ALJ did not commit error by assigning Dr. Hawk’s opinion less than
ALJ’s RFC Determination:
Plaintiff specifically argues she was more limited with regard to her ability to finger,
handle, and grasp than accounted for by the ALJ’s RFC determination, and that the RFC
needed to include a sit, stand, and walk option. RFC is the most a person can do despite that
person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545, 416.945. 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), 416.945(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 record contains little evidence of Plaintiff’s alleged carpal tunnel syndrome for
the relevant period. On November 17, 2010, Plaintiff complained to Dr. Oscar Depaz, that she
had recently been having more tingling, numbness, and weakness in her right hand, but that
she had not had any problems since her carpal tunnel syndrome release surgery in 2008. (ECF
No. 13, pp. 292-94, 528-30). On December 7, 2010, testing showed “mild deterioration of the
motor distal latency” in Plaintiff’s right wrist. (ECF No. 13, pp. 289-91, 525-27). Dr. Depaz
referred Plaintiff back to her hand surgeon for follow up and kept her on her regular
medication. Id. Dr. Larry Armstrong, D.O., noted Plaintiff’s history of bilateral hand weakness
and upper extremity numbness and tingling, on February 18, 2013, but only diagnosed
Plaintiff’s spinal problems: cervical spine stenosis, bulging cervical disc, cervical spondylosis
with myelopathy; and, Dr. Armstrong recommended an anterior cervical discectomy and
fusion procedure. (ECF No. 13, pp. 637-40). There is no evidence in the record that Plaintiff
followed up with her hand surgeon as Dr. Depaz suggested or that she was receiving any further
care for alleged problems with regard to her ability to finger, handle, and grasp. The ALJ,
despite finding Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and alleged limitations not entirely credible,
stated, “her carpal tunnel symptoms support some limitation in handling and fingering as well.”
(ECF No. 13, p. 27). The ALJ did afford weight to Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and her
treatment history prior to the start of the relevant period in determining Plaintiff’s carpal tunnel
syndrome was a severe impairment and in limiting her to frequent, rather than constant,
handling and fingering bilaterally in his RFC determination.
Plaintiff also argues the ALJ’s RFC determination should have included an option for
Plaintiff to change positions at will from sitting, standing, or walking. The ALJ considered and
accounted for Plaintiff’s history of back problems and knee problems in determining that they
were severe impairments and by limiting Plaintiff’s RFC determination to work at the
sedentary exertion level with additional postural and other restrictions. The ALJ stated,
“[Plaintiff] reported improvement in neck and arm symptoms since cervical fusion, and testing
has shown that her lumbar spine degeneration is mild in nature . . .” and “[she] does continue
to have significant problems with her knee that supports a limitation to sedentary work.” (ECF
No. 13, p. 27). Plaintiff’s healthcare providers did place some limitations on Plaintiff, such as
Dr. Armstrong on April 10, 2013, who stated in a clinic note, “[s]he has also been doing a lot
of activity with laundry and bending, twisting, lifting, pushing and pulling, and I have told her
to cut those activities back.” (ECF No. 13, p. 636). Plaintiff, however, does not direct this Court
to, nor does the record contain, any evidence other than Plaintiff’s own subjective complaints
and statements, that she was more limited than accounted for by the limitations set forth in the
ALJ’s RFC determination.
The Court notes that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ considered the medical
opinions of many treating physicians, surgeons, and specialists, as well as those of the nonexamining state agency consultants, and set forth the reasons for the weight given to the
opinions. Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012) (“It is the ALJ’s function
physicians”)(citations omitted); Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010 at 1012 (the ALJ may reject
the conclusions of any medical expert, whether hired by the claimant or the government, if
they are inconsistent with the record as a whole). Based on the record as a whole, the Court
finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC determination for the relevant time period.
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision is
hereby affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be, and is
hereby dismissed with prejudice.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 25th day of January, 2017.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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