St. Germaine v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

Filing 15

MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on March 8, 2012. (dmc) Modified on 3/9/2012 to edit signature date (dmc).

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS HOT SPRINGS DIVISION TEAK JASON ST. GERMAINE vs. PLAINTIFF Civil No. 6:10-cv-06095 MICHAEL J. ASTRUE Commissioner, Social Security Administration DEFENDANT MEMORANDUM OPINION Teak Jason St. Germaine (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and a period of disability under Titles II and XVI of the Act. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment, and conducting all post-judgment proceedings. ECF No. 5.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter. 1. Background: Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on February 6, 2008. (Tr. 88-98). Plaintiff alleged he was disabled due to headaches, extended bladder which he had to catheterize himself every 3 to 6 hours and gets light headed afterwards. (Tr. 123). Plaintiff alleged an onset 1 The docket numbers for this case are referenced by the designation “ECF No. ____” The transcript pages for this case are referenced by the designation “Tr.” 1 date of July 1, 2007. (Tr. 123). These applications were denied initially and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 45-61). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on his applications, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 62-63). This hearing was held on September 10, 2009 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. (Tr. 23-44). Plaintiff was present and represented himself at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff, his mother Chlois Weller and friend Alane Kellett testified at this hearing. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Elizabeth Clem was present at the hearing but did not testify. Id. On the date of this hearing, Plaintiff was forty-eight (48) years old, which is defined as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) (2008), and had a GED. (Tr. 31). On November 20, 2009, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s application for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 11-18). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since July 1, 2007, his alleged onset date. (Tr. 13, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of choric cystitis with marked vascular congestion. (Tr. 13, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined, however, that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 and No. 16 (“Listings”). (Tr. 14, Finding 4). In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined his RFC. (Tr. 14-17, Finding 5). The ALJ indicated he evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found his claimed limitations were not fully credible. (Tr. 15). The ALJ also determined, based upon his review of Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, the hearing testimony, and the evidence in the record, that Plaintiff retained the RFC for the full range of medium work. (Tr. 15-16, Finding 5). 2 The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 17). This included work as a laborer and painter of aircraft. Id. The ALJ found Plaintiff was able to perform his PRW. (Tr. 17, Finding 6). The ALJ then determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from July 1, 2007 through the date of his decision. (Tr. 18, Finding 7). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. On October 28, 2010, the Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 3-7). On December 15, 2010, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. Both parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 13, 14. This case is now ready for decision. 2. Applicable Law: In reviewing this case, this Court is required to determine whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010); Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner’s decision. See Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000). 3 It is well established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of proving his or her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that lasted at least one year and that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. See Cox v. Apfel, 160 F.3d 1203, 1206 (8th Cir. 1998); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines a “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 his or her disability, not simply his or her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether the adult claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner uses the familiar five-step sequential evaluation. He determines: (1) whether the claimant is presently engaged in a “substantial gainful activity”; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience); (4) whether the claimant has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there are other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See Cox, 160 F.3d at 1206; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f). The fact finder only considers the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or her RFC if the final stage of this analysis is reached. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003). 4 3. Discussion: In his appeal brief, Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. ECF No. 13. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the following: (1) the ALJ erred in his RFC assessment, (2) the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform his PRW and, (3) the ALJ improperly discounted his subjective complaints. ECF No. 13 at 11-15. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 14. After reviewing Plaintiff’s argument in the briefing and the opinion by the ALJ, this Court finds the ALJ did not fully consider Plaintiff’s subjective complaints as required by Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984). Thus, this Court will only address this issue. In assessing the credibility of a claimant, the ALJ is required to examine and to apply the five factors from Polaski v. Heckler or from 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929.2 See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). The factors to consider are as follows: (1) the claimant’s daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain; (3) the precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) the dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; and (5) the functional restrictions. See Polaski, 739 at 1322. The factors must be analyzed and considered in light of the claimant’s subjective complaints of pain. See id. The ALJ is not required to methodically discuss each factor as long as the ALJ acknowledges and examines these factors prior to discounting the claimant’s subjective complaints. See Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 971-72 (8th Cir. 2000). As long 2 Social Security Regulations 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 require the analysis of two additional factors: (1) “treatment, other than medication, you receive or have received for relief of your pain or other symptoms” and (2) “any measures you use or have used to relieve your pain or symptoms (e.g., lying flat on your back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, sleeping on a board, etc.).” However, under Polaski and its progeny, the Eighth Circuit has not yet required the analysis of these additional factors. See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). Thus, this Court will not require the analysis of these additional factors in this case. 5 as the ALJ properly applies these five factors and gives several valid reasons for finding that the Plaintiff’s subjective complaints are not entirely credible, the ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to deference. See id.; Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006). The ALJ, however, cannot discount Plaintiff’s subjective complaints “solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them [the subjective complaints].” Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322. When discounting a claimant’s complaint of pain, the ALJ must make a specific credibility determination, articulating the reasons for discrediting the testimony, addressing any inconsistencies, and discussing the Polaski factors. See Baker v. Apfel, 159 F.3d 1140, 1144 (8th Cir. 1998). The inability to work without some pain or discomfort is not a sufficient reason to find a Plaintiff disabled within the strict definition of the Act. The issue is not the existence of pain, but whether the pain a Plaintiff experiences precludes the performance of substantial gainful activity. See Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259 (8th Cir. 1991). In the present action, the ALJ did not perform a proper Polaski analysis. While the ALJ indicated the factors from Polaski had been considered (Tr. 15), a review of the ALJ’s opinion shows that instead of evaluating these factors and noting inconsistencies between Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and the evidence in the record, the ALJ merely reviewed the medical records and recognized the proper legal standard for assessing credibility. Other than mentioning some of Plaintiff’s daily activities, the ALJ made no other specific findings regarding the inconsistencies between Plaintiff’s claimed subjective complaints and the record evidence. The ALJ did indicate Plaintiff was unable to explain why he had no earnings in some years, was unable to explain his why his onset date of disability was July 1, 2007, Plaintiff had earlier filed for and been denied disability benefits in 2004, and Plaintiff was not working even before his alleged 6 onset date of disability on his prior claim. (Tr. 17). These findings do not discredit Plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain, and most likely are the result of Plaintiff representing himself at the administrative level without the benefit of counsel. The ALJ must make a specific credibility determination, articulate the reasons for discrediting the Plaintiff’s testimony, and address any inconsistencies between the testimony and the record. The ALJ failed to perform this analysis. This lack of analysis is insufficient under Polaski, and this case should be reversed and remanded for further consideration consistent with Polaski. Upon remand, the ALJ may still find Plaintiff not disabled, however a proper and complete analysis pursuant to Polaski should be performed.3 4. Conclusion: Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits to Plaintiff, is not supported by substantial evidence and should be reversed and remanded. A judgment incorporating these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58. ENTERED this 8th day of March, 2012. /s/ Barry A. Bryant HON. BARRY A. BRYANT U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE 3 Based on these findings, I do not find it necessary to reach to other points of error raised by the Plaintiff in this appeal. 7

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