Rahat v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on February 15, 2017. (src)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
MARK D. RAHAT
CIVIL NO. 15-5300
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, 1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Mark D. Rahat, 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 a 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 his current applications for DIB and SSI on March 12, 2012,
alleging an inability to work since October 1, 2010, due to an injury to 3 discs in his back,
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.
severe headaches, degenerative disc disease, insomnia, arthritis, depression, and anxiety
attacks. (Doc. 11, pp. 219, 225, 251). For DIB purposes, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
maintained insured status through October 1, 2010. (Doc. 11, p 20). An administrative video
hearing was held on October 17, 2013, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified.
(Doc. 11, pp. 44-73).
By written decision dated February 28, 2014, the ALJ found that during the relevant
time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Doc.
11, p. 20). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease, a wrist fracture, and an anxiety disorder. 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. (Doc. 11, p. 20). 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 the claimant can occasionally climb, balance, kneel, stoop, crouch and
crawl. The claimant is also limited to work where interpersonal contact is
incidental to the work performed, the complexity of the tasks is learned and
performed by rote with few variables and little judgment involved. Supervision
required is simple, direct and concrete.
(Doc. 11, p. 22). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could
perform other work as an assembly worker, an inspector/checker, and an addressing clerk.
(Doc. 11, p. 33).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on October 15, 2015. (Doc. 11, p. 6). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this
action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties.
(Doc. 7). 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 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).
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 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,
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 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, 416.920.
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in failing to consider
all of Plaintiff’s impairments in combination; 2) the ALJ erred in his analysis and credibility
findings in regard to Plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain; 3) the ALJ erred in disregarding
the opinion and findings of the primary treating physician; and 4) the ALJ erred in finding
Plaintiff able to perform a limited range of sedentary work.
Insured Status and Relevant Time Periods:
In order to have insured status under the Act, an individual is required to have twenty
quarters of coverage in each forty-quarter period ending with the first quarter of disability. 42
U.S.C. § 416(i)(3)(B). Plaintiff last met this requirement on October 1, 2010. Regarding
Plaintiff’s application for DIB, the overreaching issue in this case is the question of whether
Plaintiff was disabled during the relevant time period of October 1, 2010, his alleged onset
date of disability, through October 1, 2010, the last date he was in insured status under Title II
of the Act.
In order for Plaintiff to qualify for DIB he must prove that on or before the expiration
of his insured status he was unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which is expected to last for at least twelve
months or result in death. Basinger v. Heckler, 725 F.2d 1166, 1168 (8th Cir. 1984). Records
and medical opinions from outside the insured period can only be used in “helping to elucidate
a medical condition during the time for which benefits might be rewarded.” Cox v. Barnhart,
471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006) (holding that the parties must focus their attention on
claimant's condition at the time she last met insured status requirements).
With respect to Plaintiff’s SSI application, benefits are not payable prior to the date of
application, regardless of how far back disability may, in fact, be alleged or found to extend.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.335. Therefore, the relevant period is from March 21, 2012, the date
Plaintiff protectively applied for SSI benefits, through February 28, 2014, the date of the ALJ’s
Combination of Impairments:
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider all of the claimant’s
impairments in combination.
The ALJ stated that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC he considered “all of the claimant’s
impairments, including impairments that are not severe.” (Doc. 11, p. 19). The ALJ further
found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled one of the listed impairments. (Doc. 11, p. 20). Such language demonstrates
the ALJ considered the combined effect of Plaintiff’s impairments. Hajek v. Shalala, 30 F.3d
89, 92 (8th Cir. 1994).
Subjective Complaints and Symptom Evaluation:
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 his pain; (3) precipitating and
aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of his 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 Eighth Circuit has observed, “Our touchstone is
that [a claimant’s] credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards, 314 F.3d
After reviewing the administrative record, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered
and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors. A review of the
record revealed that Plaintiff was able to change a tire; perform activities of daily living
independently; perform basic self-care tasks independently; prepare simple meals; drive; shop
independently; and ride a motorcycle. (Doc. 11, pp. 364, 460, 462, 481, 624). The record also
revealed that Plaintiff was injured when he was riding a lawn mower and the ramp fell; and
that he planned to return to his construction work in August of 2012, but would need to limit
his lifting. (Doc. 11, pp. 654, 662). This level of activity belies Plaintiff’s complaints of pain
and limitation and the Eighth Circuit has consistently held that the ability to perform such
activities contradicts a Plaintiff’s subjective allegations of disabling pain. See Hutton v. Apfel,
175 F.3d 651, 654-655 (8th Cir. 1999) (holding ALJ’s rejection of claimant’s application
supported by substantial evidence where daily activities–making breakfast, washing dishes and
clothes, visiting friends, watching television and driving-were inconsistent with claim of total
With respect to Plaintiff’s alleged impairments, the record revealed that Plaintiff was
treated conservatively and appeared to experience some relief with the use of medication. See
Black v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 383, 386 (8th Cir.1998); See Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 840
(8th Cir. 1992) (course of conservative treatment contradicted claims of disabling pain). The
record further revealed that more than one of Plaintiff’s treating physicians noted Plaintiff’s
drug-seeking behavior during the relevant time period. It is well-established in the Eighth
Circuit that “drug-seeking” behavior may be used to discredit a claimant's subjective
allegations of disabling pain. Anderson v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 777, 780 (8th Cir.1995).
Regarding Plaintiff’s mental functioning, the record showed Plaintiff sought very little
treatment for these alleged impairments. See Gowell v. Apfel, 242 F.3d 793, 796 (8th Cir.
2001) (holding that lack of evidence of ongoing counseling or psychiatric treatment for
depression weighs against plaintiff’s claim of disability). Based on the record as a whole, the
Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff does not have
a disabling mental impairment.
The Court would note that while Plaintiff alleged an inability to seek treatment due to
a lack of finances, the record is void of any indication that Plaintiff had been denied treatment
due to the lack of funds. Murphy v. Sullivan, 953 F.3d 383, 386-87 (8th Cir. 1992) (holding
that lack of evidence that plaintiff sought low-cost medical treatment from her doctor, clinics,
or hospitals does not support plaintiff’s contention of financial hardship). It is noteworthy, that
Plaintiff was able to come up with the funds to purchase cigarettes throughout the relevant time
With regard to the testimony of Plaintiff’s father, the ALJ properly considered this
evidence but found it unpersuasive. This determination was within the ALJ's province. See
Siemers v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 299, 302 (8th Cir. 1995); Ownbey v. Shalala, 5 F.3d 342, 345 (8th
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of limitation, he
has not established that he is unable to engage in any gainful activity. Accordingly, the Court
concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints were not totally credible.
ALJ’s RFC Determination and Medical Opinions 2:
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(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 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). 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
The Court combined Plaintiff’s third and fourth argument.
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.
“[A] treating source's opinion is not inherently entitled to controlling weight.” Myers
v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 521, 525 (8th Cir. 2013). A treating physician's opinion “is entitled to
controlling weight only to the extent it is consistent with medically acceptable clinical or
laboratory diagnostic data.” Casey v. Astrue, 503 F.3d 687, 692 (8th Cir. 2007). “It is well
established that an ALJ may grant less weight to a treating physician's opinion when that
opinion conflicts with other substantial medical evidence contained within the record.” Prosch
v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1014–15 (8th Cir. 2000). “When an ALJ discounts a treating
physician's opinion, he should give good reasons for doing so.” Brown v. Astrue, 611 F.3d
941, 951–52 (8th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
In the present case, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of examining and nonexamining agency medical consultants, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, and his medical
records when he determined Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with limitations during
the time period in question. The Court notes that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ
discussed the medical opinions of examining and non-examining medical professionals, 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).
In making this RFC determination, the ALJ gave some weight to the opinion of Dr. C.
R. Magness who opined that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with limitations, including
a sit/stand option. After review, the Court finds that the ALJ gave good and well-supported
reasons for declining to give controlling weight to Dr. Magness’s opinion. See Goff v.
Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790–91 (8th Cir. 2005) (“[A]n appropriate finding of inconsistency
with other evidence alone is sufficient to discount [the treating physician's] opinion.”). Based
on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC
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 him from performing work as an
assembly worker, an inspector/checker, and 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 substantial evidence).
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 15th day of February, 2017.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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