Jefferson v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on October 17, 2016. (hnc)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
HOT SPRINGS DIVISION
Civil No. 6:15-cv-06123
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Linda Jefferson (“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 applications for a
period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) 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. 7.1
Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final
judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff protectively filed her DIB and SSI applications on October 19, 2009. (Tr. 11, 200-
212). Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to muscle spasms in back, knee and shoulder problems,
arthritis, numbness in fingers, and blood pressure. (Tr. 245). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of
September 11, 2011. (Tr. 11, 200, 207). These applications were denied initially and again upon
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.”
reconsideration. (Tr. 11). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her
applications, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 144). Plaintiff’s hearing was held on June
2, 2014. (Tr. 58-82). Plaintiff was present at this hearing and was represented by counsel. Id.
Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Mack Welch testified at this hearing. Id. During this
hearing, Plaintiff testified she was fifty-two (52) years old and had a ninth grade education but also
obtained her GED. (Tr. 63).
On October 17, 2014, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s
applications for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 11-26). In this decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured
status requirements of the Act through September 30, 2014. (Tr. 13, Finding 1). The ALJ also
determined Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since September 7,
2011, her alleged onset date. (Tr. 13, Finding 2).
The ALJ determined Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity, arthritis,
hypertension, shoulder problems, muscle spasms in her back, congestive heart failure, and
degenerative joint disease in her hands and knees. (Tr. 13, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined,
however, that Plaintiff’s impairment did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the
Listings of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 14,
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 15-25, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the RFC to perform the following:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work
as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”), and the ALJ found Plaintiff
would be unable to perform any of her PRW. (Tr. 25, Finding 6). The ALJ then evaluated whether
Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national
economy. (Tr. 25, Finding 10). In making this determination, the ALJ applied the MedicalVocational Guidelines or “The Grids.” Id. Specifically, the ALJ applied Rule 202.17 and 202.10
of the Grids. Id. These rules directed a result of “not disabled.” Id. Accordingly, the ALJ found
Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from her alleged onset
date of September 7, 2011 through date of the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 26, Finding 11).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeal Council’s review of the ALJ’s unfavorable
decision, and, on October 5, 2015, the Appeals Council denied this request for review. (Tr. 1-4).
On November 20, 2015, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the
jurisdiction of this Court on December 17, 2015. ECF No. 7. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs.
ECF Nos. 11, 12. This case is now ready for decision.
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).
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 raises the following arguments for reversal: (1) the ALJ
improperly determined her RFC; (2) the ALJ erred in applying the Grids, and (3) the ALJ erred in
determining Plaintiff’s severe impairments. ECF No. 11 at 10-19. In response, the Defendant argues
the ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 12. Because the ALJ erred in mechanically
applying the Grids, the Court will only address Plaintiff’s second argument for reversal.
The Medical-Vocational Guidelines or “the Grids” are used to evaluate the claimant’s age,
education, past work experience, and RFC in order to determine whether that claimant is disabled.
The Grids, however, cannot be mechanically applied in all cases. See Asher v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 825,
827-28 (8th Cir. 1988). If a claimant suffers from a “significant” nonexertional impairment that
diminishes that claimant’s ability to perform a full range of work (sedentary or otherwise), then the
ALJ may not rely upon the Grids. See Sanders v. Sullivan, 983 F.2d 822, 823-24 (8th Cir. 1992).
Instead, the ALJ must rely upon the testimony of a vocational expert or other similar evidence to
determine whether the claimant is disabled. See id.
A “nonexertional limitation” is a limitation or restriction which affect a claimant’s “ability
to meet the demands of jobs other than the strength demands.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569a(a)(emphasis
added). Nonexertional limitations include the following: (1) difficulty functioning due to pain; (2)
difficulty functioning due to nervousness, anxiety, or depression; (3) difficulty maintaining attention
or concentration; (4) difficulty understanding or remembering detailed instructions; (5) difficulty
seeing or hearing; (6) difficulty tolerating a physical feature of a certain work setting (such as dust
or fumes); or (7) difficulty performing the manipulative or postural functions of some work such as
reaching, handling, stooping, climbing, crawling, or crouching. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569a(c)(1).
In the present action, the ALJ recognized Plaintiff suffered from the nonexertional
impairment of degenerative joint disease in her hands and knee, back spasms, obesity, and congestive
heart failure, and the ALJ also found these were severe impairments. (Tr. 13). Despite this fact, the
ALJ still applied the Grids and did not hear testimony from a vocational expert. (Tr. 25, Finding 10).
In making this determination, it is unclear how the ALJ came to the conclusion that these
nonexertional impairments were not “significant.” Id.
Based upon his opinion, it appears the ALJ may have based this decision–and his assessment
of Plaintiff’s RFC– upon the findings of three non-treating physicians, Drs. Mark, Crow, and Cathey.
(Tr. 22-24). Their opinions, however, do not provide substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s
decision or provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate this nonexertional impairment is not
“significant.” See, e.g., Charles v. Barnhart, 375 F.3d 777, 783 (8th Cir. 2004) (holding that
generally when a consulting physician examines a claimant only once, his opinion is not substantial
Accordingly, due to these nonexertional impairments, the ALJ erred by relying upon the
Grids to direct a finding of disability. See Sanders, 983 F.2d at 823-24.
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 17th day of October 2016.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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