Eldridge v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Wiedemann on March 29, 2017. (rg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 15-5284
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, 1 Acting Commissioner,
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Amanda Eldridge, 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 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. § 405(g).
Plaintiff protectively filed her current applications for DIB and SSI on October 31,
2012, alleging an inability to work since July 31, 2012, due to depression, anxiety, adult
attention deficit disorder (ADD), scoliosis, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD). (Doc. 8, pp. 128, 145, 156, 175). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured
Nancy A. Berryhill, has been appointed to serve as acting Commissioner of Social Security, and is substituted as
Defendant, pursuant to Rule 25(d)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
status through June 30, 2015. (Doc. 8, pp. 128, 160). An administrative video hearing was
held on December 16, 2013, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Doc. 8,
By written decision dated April 25, 2014, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: thoracolumbar scoliosis, attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), major depressive disorder/depressive disorder and
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (Doc. 8, p. 61). However, after reviewing all of the
evidence presented, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s impairment 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. (Doc. 8, p. 61). The ALJ found that 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 balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb
ramps and stairs. She cannot climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds and must avoid
concentrated exposure to hazards, including no driving as a part of work. The
claimant can perform work where interpersonal contact is routine but
superficial, the complexity of tasks is learned by experience with several
variables involved and judgment is used within limits and little supervision is
required for routine tasks but detailed supervision is required for nonroutine
(Doc. 8, p. 64). With the help of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that while
Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work, she could perform work as an assembly
worker and an addressing clerk. (Doc. 8, pp. 69-70).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on September 21, 2015. (Doc. 8, pp. 5-8). 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.
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).
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), abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v.
Apfel, 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in failing to find
Plaintiff’s limitations in her upper extremities were severe impairments; 2) the ALJ erred in
his RFC determination when failing to include applicable reaching and handling limitations;
3) the ALJ failed to fully develop the record by failing to order a physical consultative
examination; and 4) the ALJ’s mental RFC was deficient and not based on substantial
evidence. (Doc. 9). 2
The Court has reordered Plaintiff’s arguments to correspond with the five-step analysis utilized by the Commissioner
Full and Fair Development of the Record:
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to fully develop the record by failing to
order a physical consultative examination. The ALJ has a duty to fully and fairly develop the
record. See Frankl v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 935, 938 (8th Cir. 1995). The ALJ’s duty to fully and
fairly develop the record is independent of Plaintiff’s burden to press her case. Vossen v.
Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1016 (8th Cir. 2010). The ALJ, however, is not required to function as
Plaintiff’s substitute counsel, but only to develop a reasonably complete record. “Reversal due
to failure to develop the record is only warranted where such failure is unfair or prejudicial.”
Shannon v. Chater, 54 F.3d 484, 488 (8th Cir. 1995). “While an ALJ does have a duty to
develop the record, this duty is not never-ending and an ALJ is not required to disprove every
possible impairment.” McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 612 (8th Cir. 2011).
In this case, the record consists of physical and mental RFC assessments completed by
non-examining medical consultants; a mental diagnostic evaluation; and Plaintiff’s medical
records, which included clinic notes from her primary care physicians, hospital records, and
imaging results. After reviewing the entire record, the Court finds the record before the ALJ
contained the evidence required to make a full and informed decision regarding Plaintiff’s
capabilities during the relevant time period. Accordingly, the undersigned finds the ALJ fully
and fairly developed the record.
At Step Two of the sequential analysis, the ALJ is required to determine whether a
claimant’s impairments are severe. See 20 C .F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). While “severity
is not an onerous requirement for the claimant to meet…it is also not a toothless standard.”
Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 855 (8th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). To be severe, an
impairment only needs to have more than a minimal impact on a claimant’s ability to perform
work-related activities. See Social Security Ruling 96-3p. The claimant has the burden of
proof of showing she suffers from a medically-severe impairment at Step Two. See Mittlestedt
v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2000).
While the ALJ did not find all of Plaintiff’s alleged impairments to be severe
impairments, the ALJ specifically discussed the alleged impairments in the decision and
considered all of Plaintiff’s impairments, including the impairments that were found to be nonsevere. See Swartz v. Barnhart, 188 F. App’x 361, 368 (6th Cir. 2006) (where ALJ finds at
least one “severe” impairment and proceeds to assess claimant’s RFC based on all alleged
impairments, any error in failing to identify particular impairment as “severe” at step two is
harmless); Elmore v. Astrue, 2012 WL 1085487 *12 (E.D. Mo. March 5, 2012); see also 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(2), 416.945(a)(2) (in assessing RFC, ALJ must consider “all of [a
claimant’s] medically determinable impairments ..., including ... impairments that are not
‘severe’ ”); §§ 404.1523(c), 416.923(c) (ALJ must “consider the combined effect of all [the
claimant’s] impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered
separately, would be of sufficient severity”).
With regard to Plaintiff’s alleged limitations in her upper extremities, after reviewing
the record, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s findings. The Court
finds the ALJ did not commit reversible error in setting forth Plaintiff’s severe impairments
during the relevant time period.
Subjective Complaints and Symptom Analysis:
The ALJ was required to consider all the evidence relating to Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints including evidence presented by third parties that relates to: (1) Plaintiff's daily
activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of her pain; (3) precipitating and
aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of her medication; and (5)
functional restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). While an
ALJ may not discount a claimant’s subjective complaints solely because the medical evidence
fails to support them, an ALJ may discount those complaints where inconsistencies appear in
the record as a whole. Id. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
observed, “Our touchstone is that [a claimant’s] credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to
decide.” Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003).
After reviewing the administrative record, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered
and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors. The ALJ
discussed the following: Plaintiff’s extensive activities of daily living, including caring for
young children, cooking, light cleaning and laundry, and watering flowers; the objective
medical evidence; the conservative treatment Plaintiff received for her back condition;
Plaintiff’s ability to work as a receptionist and her ability to attend CNA training while on
Ritalin for her Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); and Plaintiff’s improvement
of her ADHD symptoms while on medication. (Doc. 8 pp. 65-69). The ALJ also noted that
on December 13, 2012, emergency room records reveal that she was treated for an elbow sprain
after she had gone bowling; however, emergency room reports also showed she did not
complain of any back or neck pain. (Doc. 8, pp. 66-67). Based on a review of the record as a
whole, this Court finds substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s credibility assessment and
because the ALJ provided good reasons for discounting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, this
Court defers to the ALJ’s credibility determination. See Leckenby v. Astrue, 487 F.3d 626,
632 (8th Cir. 2007) (this Court defers to the ALJ’s credibility determination when it is
supported by good reasons and substantial evidence).
The ALJ’s RFC Determination and Medical Opinions:
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(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 her 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),
416.645(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
heris RFC.” Id.
In the present case, when determining that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with
limitations, the ALJ considered the relevant medical records, the medical opinions from
treating, examining, and non-examining physicians, 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 to resolve conflicts among the opinions of various treating and examining
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 of sedentary work with
Hypothetical Question to the Vocational Expert:
After thoroughly reviewing the hearing transcript along with the entire evidence of
record, the Court finds that the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the vocational expert fully set
forth the impairments which the ALJ accepted as true and which were supported by the record
as a whole. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 794 (8th Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the Court finds
that the vocational expert’s opinion constitutes substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s
conclusion that Plaintiff’s impairments did not preclude her from performing work as an
assembly worker or an addressing clerk. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996)
(testimony from vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question constitutes
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision
should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be
dismissed with prejudice.
DATED this 29th day of March, 2017.
/s/ Erin L. Wiedemann
HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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