Hughes v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on July 19, 2016. (hnc)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
HOT SPRINGS DIVISION
Civil No. 6:15-cv-06103
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Sheila Hughes (“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 her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and a period of disability under Title II 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 postjudgment 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.
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on November 30, 2012. (Tr. 11, 125-131).
Plaintiff alleged she was disabled due to diabetes and headaches. (Tr. 164). Plaintiff alleged an
onset date of April 15, 2012. (Tr. 11, 164). This application was denied initially and again upon
reconsideration. (Tr. 11). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her
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.”
application and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 78).
Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was held on May 21, 2014. (Tr. 23-49). Plaintiff was
present and was represented by counsel, Sherry Burnett, at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational
Expert ("VE") William Elmore, testified at this hearing. Id. On the date of this hearing, Plaintiff
was fifty-two (52) years old and had a high school education. (Tr. 28-29).
On August 13, 2014, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s application
for DIB. (Tr. 11-18). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Act through December 31, 2016. (Tr. 13, Finding 1). The ALJ also determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since April 15, 2012. (Tr. 13,
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of type II diabetes and migraine
headaches. (Tr. 13, Finding 3). The ALJ then determined Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or
medically equal the requirements of any of the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P
of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 14, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 14-17). First, the ALJ indicated he evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the RFC for the full range of medium work. (Tr. 14, Finding 5).
The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 17, Finding 6). The
ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing his PRW as a drilling-machine operator and as a solderer.
Id. Based upon this finding, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined
by the Act from April 15, 2012, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 18, Finding 7).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s unfavorable decision.
(Tr. 7). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision.
(Tr. 1-6). On September 23, 2015, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties
consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on September 23, 2015. ECF No. 5. Both Parties have
filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 12, 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)
(2006); 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).
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).
In her appeal brief, Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by
substantial evidence in the record. ECF No. 12, Pg. 4-13. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ
erred in failing to fully develop the record based on the ALJ’s failure to obtain records. Id. In
response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 14.
The ALJ has the duty to fully and fairly develop the record, even where the Plaintiff is
represented by counsel. If a physician’s report of a claimant’s limitations are stated only generally,
the ALJ should ask the physician to clarify and explain the stated limitations. See Vaughn v.
Heckler, 741 F. 2d 177,179 (8th Cir. 1984). Furthermore, the ALJ is required to order medical
examinations and tests if the medical records presented do not provide sufficient medical evidence
to determine the nature and extent of a claimant’s limitations and impairments. See Barrett v.
Shalala, 38 F. 3d 1019, 1023 (8th Cir. 1994). The ALJ must develop the record until the evidence
is sufficiently clear to make a fair determination as to whether the claimant is disabled. See Landess
v. Weinberger, 490 F. 2d 1187, 1189 (8th Cir. 1974).
In addition, a claimant must show not only that the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the
record, but he must also show he was prejudiced or treated unfairly by the ALJ's failure. See Onstad
v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1232, 1234 (8th Cir. 1993). Further, “[i]t is reversible error for an ALJ not to
order a consultative examination when such an evaluation is necessary for him to make an informed
decision.” Dozier v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 274, 276 (8th Cir. 1985) (quoting Reeves v. Heckler, 734
F.2d 519, 522 n.1 (11th Cir. 1984)).
To begin with, the administrative hearing is not an adversarial proceeding. Battles v. Shalala,
36 F.3d 43, 44 (8th Cir. 1994). In this matter, it appears the medical record is incomplete. Some
requests were not sent to the correct provider or involve providers who relocated to new employers
and possibly missed records. Plaintiff also showed that some of the requests for medical records
missed records due to the requested date being limited.
As a result of these findings, this Court finds the ALJ failed to properly develop the record.
On remand, further development of these issues is needed.
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 19th day of July 2016.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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