Douglass v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on April 9, 2018. (mjm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
HOT SPRINGS DIVISION
LORA A. DOUGLASS
Civil No. 6:17-cv-06035
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Lora A. Douglass (“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
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) 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 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.
Plaintiff’s application for DIB was filed on February 2, 2016. (Tr. 16). Plaintiff alleged she
was disabled due to lupus and sjogrens syndrome. (Tr. 177). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of April
15, 2015. (Tr. 16). This application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. Id.
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her application and this hearing request
was granted. (Tr. 101).
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.”
Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was held on October 20, 2016. (Tr. 25-46). Plaintiff was
present and was represented by counsel, Sherri McDonough, at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff and
Vocational Expert (“VE”) Myrtle Johnson testified at this hearing. Id. At the time of this hearing,
Plaintiff was forty (40) years old and had a high school education. (Tr. 36).
On December 28, 2016, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s
application for DIB. (Tr. 16-25). In this decision, the ALJ determined the Plaintiff met the insured
status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2020. (Tr. 18, Finding 1). The ALJ also
determined Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since April 15, 2015.
(Tr. 18, Finding 2).
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of lupus, headaches, anxiety,
depression, and obesity. (Tr. 18, 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. 18, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 20-23). 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 to perform a reduced range of sedentary work limited to occasional overhead reaching, and
frequent handling and fingering with the left upper extremity. (Tr. 18).
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 23, Finding 6). The ALJ
found Plaintiff was unable to perform her PRW. Id. The ALJ, however, also determined there was
other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 24,
finding 10). The ALJ based this determination upon the testimony of the VE. Id. Specifically, the
VE testified that given all Plaintiff's vocational factors, a hypothetical individual would be able to
perform the requirements of representative occupations such as call out operator with approximately
8,400 such jobs in the nation and surveillance system monitor with approximately 22,600 such jobs
in the nation
Id. Based upon this finding, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a
disability as defined by the Act from April 25, 2015, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 25,
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 10). See
20 C.F.R. § 404.968. The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1-3).
On March 31, 2017, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the
jurisdiction of this Court on March 31, 2017. ECF No. 5. 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)
(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).
Plaintiff brings the present appeal claiming the ALJ erred: (A) by failing to find Plaintiff met
a Listing and (B) and in assessing Plaintiff’s RFC. ECF No. 13, Pgs. 3-15. In response, the
Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 14.
The ALJ must determine whether Plaintiff has a severe impairment that significantly limits
the physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. A medically determinable impairment
or combination of impairments is severe if it significantly limits an individual’s physical or mental
ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521 and 416.921.
The ALJ found Plaintiff did suffer from impairments considered to be severe within the
meaning of the Social Security regulations. These impairments included lupus, headaches, anxiety,
depression, and obesity. (Tr. 18, Finding 3). However, there was no substantial evidence in the
record showing Plaintiff’s condition was severe enough to meet or equal that of a listed impairment
as set forth in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1. Plaintiff has the
burden of establishing that her impairment(s) meet or equal an impairment set out in the Listing of
Impairments. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-31 (1990). Plaintiff has not met this burden.
Plaintiff argues she meets a Listing under Section 14.02 for systemic lupus erythematosus.
ECF No. 13, Pgs. 3-11. Defendant argues Plaintiff has failed to establish she meets this Listing.
ECF No. 14.
Impairments found under Listing 14.02 for systemic lupus erythematosus requires evidence
A. Involvement of two or more organs/body systems, with:
1. One of the organs/body systems involved to at least a moderate level
of severity; and
2. At least two of the constitutional symptoms or signs (severe fatigue,
fever, malaise, or involuntary weight loss).
B. Repeated manifestations of SLE, with at least two of the
constitutional symptoms or signs (severe fatigue, fever, malaise, or
involuntary weight loss) and one of the following at the marked level:
1. Limitation of activities of daily living.
2. Limitation in maintaining social functioning.
3. Limitation in completing tasks in a timely manner due to
deficiencies in concentration, persistence, or pace
20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 14.02.
Plaintiff’s argument is she meets the B criteria of Listing 14.02. However, Plaintiff’s exams
regarding her joints, fingers, hands, and knees were often normal. (Tr. 313, 333-334, 387, 396, 412,
417, 452-453, 467, 472, 477, 486). Also, Plaintiff had a normal gait, grossly normal tone and muscle
strength, no laxity or sublaxation of any joints, and no inflammation. Id. On February 5, 2016, Dr.
P. Ross Bandy indicated Plaintiff’s lupus was mild and controlled with modest treatment. (Tr. 380).
Additionally, Dr. Michael Mullins, stated Plaintiff’s pattern of joint symptomatology had been
stable and nonprogressive throughout the relevant period. (Tr. 336, 420, 484).
Furthermore, the record shows Plaintiff did not have marked limitations in the areas of daily
activities, social functioning, or concentration, persistence, or pace. In the area of daily activities,
Plaintiff was able to perform her own personal care and cared for her son; performed several
household chores; was able to drive and shop; and managed her own finances. (Tr. 187-190).
Additionally, Dr. P. Ross Bandy felt there was no reason Plaintiff should not be gainfully employed.
(Tr. 383). Regarding social functioning, Plaintiff socialized with family; spent time with others;
socialized on social media; and did not have problems getting along with friends and family or
(Tr. 191-194). Although Plaintiff indicated occasional difficulties with
concentration, her mental status examinations were routinely normal. (Tr. 313, 333-334, 387, 396,
412, 417, 452-453, 467, 472, 477, 486 ). Furthermore, Dr. Elizabeth Sullivan found Plaintiff had
good attention and concentration with an intact remote and recent memory. (Tr. 466). Dr. Sullivan
also stated Plaintiff was able to follow commands and exhibited appropriate insight. Id.
Whether Plaintiff meets a listed impairment is a medical determination and must be
established by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1525(c), 404.1526(b), 416.925(c), 416.926(b). Plaintiff has not met this burden. I find
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments equal to one listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1.
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 retained the RFC to perform a reduced range of
sedentary work limited to occasional overhead reaching, and frequent handling and fingering with
the left upper extremity. (Tr. 18). Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in this RFC determination. ECF No.
13, Pgs. 11-14. However, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s RFC determination.
In his opinion, the ALJ considered Plaintiff’s alleged impairments and discounted those he
found were not credible. Plaintiff has not referenced any specific limitations the ALJ improperly
assessed or provided any medical evidence or other evidence demonstrating the ALJ erred in
assessing his limitations. Plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating her alleged limitations. See, e.g.,
Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1069 (8th Cir. 2000). Without more, the Court cannot find the ALJ
erred in assessing her RFC. The mere fact Plaintiff suffers from a number of different impairments
does not demonstrate she is disabled due to those impairments.
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s RFC determination. Plaintiff has the burden of
establishing her claimed RFC. See Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting
Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590 (8th Cir. 2004)). Because Plaintiff has not met her
burden in this case and because the ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by sufficient medical
evidence, this Court finds the ALJ’s RFC determination should be affirmed.
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. A judgment incorporating
these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58.
ENTERED this 9th day of April 2018.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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