Smith v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on February 2, 2017. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
RYAN V. SMITH
CIVIL NO. 16-5002
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Ryan V. Smith, 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 January 2, 2014,
alleging an inability to work since December 21, 2012, due to degenerative disc disease, a
bulging disc, chronic pain, and an inability to get along with people. (Doc. 10, pp. 73, 187,
195). An administrative video hearing was held on February 26, 2015, at which Plaintiff
appeared with counsel and testified. (Doc. 10, pp. 42-70).
By written decision dated June 3, 2015, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Doc. 10,
p. 26). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease and anxiety. 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. 10, p. 27). 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 the claimant can occasionally stoop, crouch, balance, kneel, climb,
crawl and work overhead bilaterally. He can perform work where interpersonal
contact is incidental to the work performed. The claimant can perform simple,
routine, repetitive tasks. He can respond to supervision that is simple, direct
(Doc. 10, p. 28). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could
perform work as an inspector/checker, ordinance; a table worker; and a machine operator.
(Doc. 10, p. 36).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
after reviewing additional evidence submitted by Plaintiff denied that request on October 30,
2015. (Doc. 10, pp. 5-11). 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, 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 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 failed to properly weigh the
medical and opinion evidence of record and erred in his decision to discount the opinion
evidence of Plaintiff’s treating physician; 2) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff’s RFC; and
3) the ALJ erred in the Step Five determination.
Subjective Complaint and Symptom Evaluation:
We now address the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints. 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 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. A review of the
record reveals that Plaintiff reported he was able to take care of his personal needs slowly due
to discomfort, to prepare simple meals; to do dishes and laundry; to drive; to shop for groceries
and household items; to pay bills; to watch television and talk on the telephone. Plaintiff
reported to Dr. Terry L. Efird that he was able to take perform activities of daily living
independently but sometimes lacked the motivation; to shop for short periods of time; to handle
personal finances; to use Facebook a few times per week; and to interact with a new girlfriend
With regard to Plaintiff’s alleged degenerative disc disease, the ALJ found that while
Plaintiff may indeed have some limitations, the evidence did not support a finding of disability.
A review of the evidence reveals that Plaintiff’s pain responded well to medication. Brace v.
Astrue, 578 F.3d 882, 885 (8th Cir. 2009) (“If an impairment can be controlled by treatment
or medication, it cannot be considered disabling.”)(citations omitted). Thus, while Plaintiff
may indeed experience some degree of pain due to his degenerative disc disease, the Court
finds substantial evidence of record supporting the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff does not have a
disabling back impairment. See Lawrence v. Chater, 107 F.3d 674, 676 (8th Cir. 1997)
(upholding ALJ's determination that claimant was not disabled even though she had in fact
sustained a back injury and suffered some degree of pain).
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). Evidence presented to the Appeals
Council revealed that Plaintiff complained of suicidal ideation in May of 2015. A review of
the record reveals that Plaintiff was able to control his suicidal thoughts fairly quickly once
admitted. While admitted, Plaintiff was compliant with medication but reported he would not
take medications while he was “on the street,” and was reluctant to follow-up with outpatient
treatment. Plaintiff also reported that he thought the admission might help to make his
application for disability stronger. 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
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 and alcohol throughout the
relevant time period.
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 1:
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
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).
The Court combined Plaintiff’s first and second argument.
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).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating
physician, Dr. Matthew Walter. On June 10, 2014, Dr. Walter completed a Medical Source
Statement opining that Plaintiff was able to perform less than sedentary work. (Doc. 10, p.
417). After review, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in discounting the opinion of Dr.
Walter. The ALJ declined to give controlling weight to Dr. Walter’s opinion for good and wellsupported reasons. 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 determination.
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
inspector/checker, ordinance; a table worker; and a machine operator. 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 2nd day of February, 2017.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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