Farnsworth v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Wiedemann on August 4, 2017. (rg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 16-5228
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, 1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Dawna Farnsworth, 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) 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 July 19, 2012,
alleging an inability since December 31, 2009, 2 due to back problems, neck problems, anxiety,
depression and fibromyalgia. (Doc. 10, pp. 47, 115, 314, 321). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff
maintained insured status through March 31, 2013.
(Doc. 10, pp. 18, 176, 329).
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.
Plaintiff amended her onset date to March 25, 2011. (Doc. 10, pp. 88, 176).
administrative video hearing was held on August 9, 2013, at which Plaintiff appeared with
counsel and testified. (Doc. 10, pp. 83-105).
In a written decision dated September 19, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained
the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with limitations. (Doc. 10,
pp. 173-187). Plaintiff requested review of the unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council.
(Doc. 10, p. 263). On October 3, 2014, the Appeals Council entered an order remanding the
case back to the ALJ. (Doc. 10, pp. 194-198). A supplemental administrative video hearing
was held on March 30, 2015. (Doc. 10, pp. 44-82).
By written decision dated September 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. 20). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease; a rotator cuff abnormality; obesity; bilateral vision loss; a urinary
tract disorder; ovarian cysts, status post postoperative; anxiety disorder; depressive disorder;
and borderline personality 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. 10, p. 21). 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 she can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, she
can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally, and she can frequently
finger/handle bilaterally. She cannot do work requiring excellent vision but can
avoid workplace hazards and can distinguish between shapes and colors of
items such as nails, screws and bolts. She can do simple, routine and repetitive
tasks in a setting where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work
performed. She can respond to supervision that is simple, direct and concrete.
(Doc. 10, p. 23). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could
perform work as a fishing reel assembler, a motor polarizer, and a cuff folder. (Doc. 10, p.
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on July 13, 2016. (Doc. 10, pp. 8-11). 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 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.
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred at Step 5; 2) the ALJ
erred when considering Plaintiff’s urinary/abdominal issues; and 3) the ALJ erred in his
credibility analysis. 3
Insured Status and Relevant Time Period:
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 March 31, 2013. 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 March 25, 2011, her amended alleged
onset date of disability, through March 31, 2013, the last date she 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 her insured status she 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.
The Court has reordered Plaintiff’s arguments to correspond with the five-step analysis utilized by the Commissioner.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.335. Therefore, the relevant period is from July 19, 2012, the date
Plaintiff protectively applied for SSI benefits, through September 3, 2015, the date of the ALJ’s
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 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 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 completed a Function Report on August 12, 2012, wherein she
indicated that she was unable to prepare meals or perform household chores without excessive
pain. (Doc. 10, pp. 396-403). Plaintiff also indicated that she was able to shop occasionally
for prescriptions and groceries and that she spent her time watching television and talking on
the telephone. Plaintiff reported that she did not go anywhere on a regular basis. However,
the record revealed that Plaintiff reported the ability to perform activities of daily living
independently; that she could walk four miles at a moderate pace without difficulty; that she
usually attended karaoke weekly; and that she was able to participate in social events such as
church and going out to eat and to the movies. (Doc. 10, pp. 906, 923, 939, 950, 1129, 1178,
1193, 1343, 1819, 1934, 2022).
With regard to Plaintiff’s alleged mental impairments, the record failed to demonstrate
that Plaintiff sought on-going and consistent treatment from a mental health professional
during the relevant time period. 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).
As for Plaintiff’s physical impairments, the record revealed that Plaintiff sought
treatment for back and neck pain which included an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion in
June of 2012. While Plaintiff continued to report severe pain, the medical records revealed that
Plaintiff was often found to have a non-tender back and neck, and full range of motion in her
joints and extremities. Plaintiff’s treating physicians also noted on more than one occasion
that there were no physical findings to support her level of pain or her pain response appeared
exaggerated for her symptoms. (Doc. 10, pp. 1314, 1460, 1471). Plaintiff also sought treatment
for urinary and abdominal issues during the relevant time period. A review of the record
revealed that Plaintiff responded well to treatment and as late as January of 2015, Plaintiff
denied experiencing dysuria, frequency, or urgency, and also denied experiencing abdominal
With regard to Plaintiff's testimony that her medications cause her to be drowsy and
sedated, the Court points out that the medical evidence does not indicate Plaintiff discussed
these side effects with her treating physicians. Richmond v. Shalala, 23 F.3d 1441, 1443-1444
(8th Cir. 1994). A review of the record revealed that while Plaintiff reported experiencing side
effects to Dr. Mary J. Sonntag during the consultative mental evaluation, Plaintiff denied
experiencing these side effects to her treating physician on October 29, 2012, April 21, 2014,
September 12, 2014, and December 15, 2014. (Doc. 10, pp. 1010, 1480, 1511, 1550).
With regard to the third-party statement completed by Plaintiff’s sister, 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 Cir. 1993).
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of limitation, she
has not established that she 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:
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 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). 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 h[er] RFC.” Id.
When determining the RFC, a treating physician's opinion is given more weight than
other sources in a disability proceeding. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).
When a treating
physician's opinion is supported by proper medical testing, and is not inconsistent with other
substantial evidence in the record, the ALJ must give the opinion controlling weight. Id.
“However, [a]n ALJ may discount or even disregard the opinion of a treating physician where
other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence, or
where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such
opinions.” Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010) (alteration in original)
(internal quotation omitted). Ultimately, the ALJ must “give good reasons” to explain the
weight given the treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).
In the present case, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of examining and nonexamining agency medical consultants, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, and her medical
records when he determined Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with limitations. The
Court notes that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ discussed the medical opinions of
treating, 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 determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ gave little weight to the medical source
statement completed by Mary Kaye Kerby, APN, opining that Plaintiff could perform less than
sedentary work. (Doc. 10, pp. 1076-1078). After review, the Court finds that the ALJ did not
err in discounting the opinion of Nurse Kerby. The ALJ declined to give controlling weight to
Nurse Kerby’s opinion for good and well-supported 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.”). The ALJ also took
Plaintiff’s obesity into account when determining Plaintiff’s RFC. Heino v. Astrue, 578 F.3d
873, 881-882 (8th Cir. 2009) (when an ALJ references the claimant's obesity during the claim
evaluation process, such review may be sufficient to avoid reversal). 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:
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that jobs existed in significant numbers
in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.
At the supplemental hearing, the vocational expert testified that with respect to the
fishing reel assemblers, there were 58 jobs in the state of Arkansas and 3,036 in the national
economy. (Doc. 10, p. 79). Regarding the motor polarizer, there were 130 jobs in the state of
Arkansas and 4,839 in the national economy. Finally, with respect to the cuff folder, there were
106 jobs in the state of Arkansas and 3,916 in the national economy. The Eighth Circuit found
in Johnson v. Chater, 108 F.3d 178, 180 (8th Cir. 1997) that 200 jobs of addresser or document
preparer in Iowa and 10,000 in the national economy to be a significant number. More recently,
in Gholston v. Colvin, No. 14-CF-2064-LRR, 2015 WL 6167824 (N.D. Iowa Oct.21, 2015),
in analyzing the issue presented, the Court referred to Welsh v. Colvin, 765 F.3d 927, 930 (8th
Cir. 2014), where the Eighth Circuit held that where there were 330 positions regionally and
35,000 positions nationally, there were a sufficient number of jobs to satisfy the requirement.
2015 WL 6167824 at *23. The Court in Gholston therefore found that 550 local positions in
Iowa and 57,700 positions nationally fell within the bounds set forth by the Eighth Circuit.
Although in this case the number of local jobs available is less than those referenced
by the cases cited above, the Court also finds guidance in 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A), which
provides, in pertinent part, that “‘work which exists in the national economy’” means work
which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in
several regions of the country.”(italics added). In the case now before the Court, there are 3,036
fishing reel assemblers in the national economy, 4,839 motor polarizers, and 3,916 cuff folders
in the national economy. Therefore, even if the Court found that 294 local jobs were not
significant numbers, which it does not, there would still be significant numbers of such jobs in the
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 a fishing
reel assembler, a motor polarizer, and a cuff folder. 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 4th day of August 2017.
/s/ Erin L. Wiedemann
HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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