James v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on December 7, 2017. (mjm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
HOT SPRINGS DIVISION
Civil No. 6:16-cv-06114
NANCY A. BERRYHILL
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Angel James (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social
Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006), seeking judicial review of a final decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her application for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and a period of disability under Title 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. 11.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this
memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff filed her application for SSI on February 26, 2013. (Tr. 12, 178-183). Plaintiff
alleged she was disabled due to depression and anxiety. (Tr. 200). Plaintiff alleged an onset date
of March 1, 2011, which was amended to February 26, 2013. (Tr. 12, 178). Plaintiff’s application
was denied initially and at the reconsideration level. (Tr. 12). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an
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.”
administrative hearing on her application. (Tr. 125).
Plaintiff’s hearing was held on January 22, 2015. (Tr. 30-69). Plaintiff was present and was
represented by her attorney, Michael Angel, at this hearing. See id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert
(“VE”) William Elmore testified at this hearing. See id. On the date of this hearing, Plaintiff was
forty-eight (48) years old, and had an eighth grade education. (Tr. 36).
On June 24, 2015, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s application
for SSI. (Tr. 12-25). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity
(“SGA”) since February 26, 2013. (Tr. 14, Finding 1). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff had the
severe impairments of degenerative hepatitis C infection, history of methamphetamine abuse, history
of alcohol abuse, bipolar disorder, and obesity since 2007. (Tr. 14, Finding 2). The ALJ 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 (“Listings”). (Tr. 15, Finding 3).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 16-24). First, the ALJ indicated evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints pursuant to the
requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 and found her claimed limitations
were not totally credible. (Tr. 18). Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC to lift and
carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk two hours in an
eight-hour workday in intervals of 20 minutes; sit in intervals of 20 minutes for six hours in an
eight-hour workday; and push and/or pull 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds
frequently; could occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, climb, balance, but should avoid stooping,
crouching, crawling, climbing or balancing; the mental ability to understand, remember, and carry
out simple jobs instructions; make judgments in simple work-related situations; respond
appropriately to coworkers/ supervisors with occasional incidental contact that is not necessary to
perform the work; and respond appropriately to minor changes in usual work routine, and have no
dealings with the general public. (Tr. 16-17, Finding 4).
The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”) and found Plaintiff did not
have any PRW. (Tr. 24, Finding 5). The ALJ then considered whether Plaintiff retained the capacity
to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 24, Finding 9).
The VE testified at the administrative hearing regarding this issue. (Tr. 54-56). Based upon this
testimony and considering her RFC, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform
the following jobs: (1) production assembler with approximately 60,000 such jobs nationally and
1,000 in Arkansas, and (2) document preparer with approximately 60,000 such jobs nationally and
500 in Arkansas. (Tr. 24-25). Because Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform this other work, the
ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from
February 26, 2013 through the date of the decision. (Tr. 25, Finding 10).
On July 20, 2015, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s unfavorable
decision. (Tr. 7). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. On September 26, 2016, the Appeals Council declined
to review the ALJ’s unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1-3). On November 4, 2016, Plaintiff filed the
present appeal. ECF No. 1. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on April 7, 2017.
ECF No. 11. Both parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 19, 20. This case is now ready for
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. 19 at 5-11. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred
by improperly evaluating the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physicians and a consultative physician.
Id. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 20.
Prior to Step Four of the sequential analysis in a disability determination, the ALJ is required
to determine a claimant’s RFC. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). This RFC determination must
be based on medical evidence that addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace. See
Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 807 (8th Cir. 2004). The ALJ should consider “‘all the evidence
in the record’ in determining the RFC, including ‘the medical records, observations of treating
physicians and others, and an individual’s own description of his limitations.’” Stormo v. Barnhart,
377 F.3d 801, 807 (8th Cir. 2004) (quoting Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019 (8th Cir. 2002)).
The Plaintiff has the burden of producing documents and evidence to support his or her claimed
RFC. See Cox, 160 F.3d at1206; 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).
The ALJ, however, bears the primary responsibility for making the RFC determination and
for ensuring there is “some medical evidence” regarding the claimant’s “ability to function in the
workplace” that supports the RFC determination. Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 703-04 (8th Cir.
2001). Furthermore, this Court is required to affirm the ALJ’s RFC determination if that
determination is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See McKinney v. Apfel,
228 F.3d 860, 862 (8th Cir. 2000).
In this matter, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to lift and carry 10 pounds
occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk two hours in an eight-hour
workday in intervals of 20 minutes; sit in intervals of 20 minutes for six hours in an eight-hour
workday; and push and/or pull 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; could
occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, climb, balance, but should avoid stooping, crouching, crawling,
climbing or balancing; mental ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple jobs
instructions; make judgments in simple work-related situations; respond appropriately to coworkers/
supervisors with occasional incidental contact that is not necessary to perform the work; and respond
appropriately to minor changes in usual work routine, and have no dealings with the general public.
(Tr. 16-17, Finding 4). Plaintiff claims substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s RFC
determination because the ALJ erred in his treatment of the opinions of her treating physicians.
Defendant argues the ALJ considered these opinions but properly disregarded them for being
inconsistent with the evidence in the record.
Social Security Regulations and case law state that a treating physician's opinion will be
granted “controlling weight,” provided it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the]
record.” See SSR 96-2p; Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012-13 (8th Cir. 2000)(citing 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(d)(2)). An ALJ is required to give good reasons for the particular weight given to a
treating physician’s evaluation. See Prosch, 201 F.3d at1013 (citing 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(d)(2), and
SSR 96-2p). An ALJ may disregard the opinion of a treating physician only 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. Id. at 1013
(quoting Rogers v. Chater, 118 F.3d 600, 602 (8th Cir. 1997), and Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320,
1324-25 (8th Cir. 1996)).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to properly consider and ignored the opinions of psychiatrist
Dr. Charles Lewis. Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Lewis and at the Dayspring Behavioral Health Center
on several occasions between January 2014 and December 2014. (Tr. 383-404). Plaintiff was
diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder after the initial visit on January 14, 2014. (Tr. 388). On December
29, 2014, Dr. Lewis completed a Medical Source Statement which among other things, stated
Plaintiff was markedly limited in her ability to respond appropriately to work pressures in a usual
work setting. (Tr. 411-412). The ALJ failed to provide any analysis of these records.
The ALJ has the responsibility to determine which findings are inconsistent and which
opinions should be given greater weight than other opinions. See Brown v. Astrue, 611 F.3d 941,
951-52. However, when an ALJ determines that a treating physician’s opinion should be discounted,
“he should give good reasons for doing so.” Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted). In this
matter, the ALJ’s complete lack of analysis and review certainly does not amount to “good reasons”
for discounting Dr. Lewis’ findings. See Brown, 611 F.3d at 951-52. At the very least, if the ALJ
found this record was unclear, ambiguous, or inconclusive, the ALJ should have re-contacted Dr.
Lewis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(e) (requiring the ALJ to re-contact the claimant’s treating physician
or psychologist or other medical source where the information the SSA receives from that source is
inadequate to determine whether the claimant is disabled).
Substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s decision of Plaintiff being not disabled
because the ALJ failed to properly analyze the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Lewis.
Because the ALJ did not properly review the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician, this case
should be reversed and remanded for proper review and analysis of the opinions of Dr. Lewis. Upon
remand, the ALJ may still find Plaintiff not disabled, however a proper and complete analysis
pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2) must be performed.
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 7th day of December 2017.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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