Davis v. Commissioner of Social Security
ORDER Accepting Report and Recommendation RE: 15 Report and Recommendation: The Commissioner's determination that Plaintiff Davis was not disabled is reversed and this matter is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings as described by Judge Mahoney: Judgment shall enter in favor of Plaintiff Davis and against the Defendant Commissioner. Signed by Chief Judge Leonard T Strand on 08/31/17. (kfs)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF IOWA
CEDAR RAPIDS DIVISION
DEBRA JEAN DAVIS,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND
ORDER ON REPORT AND
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
This case is before me on a Report and Recommendation (R&R) filed by the
Honorable Kelly K.E. Mahoney, United States Magistrate Judge. See Doc. No. 15.
Judge Mahoney recommends that I reverse the decision by the Commissioner of Social
Security (the Commissioner) and remand this case for the ALJ to further develop the
record with regard to the effect of plaintiff Debra Jean Davis’ carpal tunnel syndrome
(CTS) on her residual functional capacity (RFC). Neither party has objected to the R&R.
The deadline for such objections has expired.
Judicial Review of the Commissioner’s Decision
The Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed “if it is supported by substantial
evidence on the record as a whole.” Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577 (8th Cir.
2006); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as
to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . .”). “Substantial
evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept
as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 645 (8th Cir.
2003). The Eighth Circuit explains the standard as “something less than the weight of
the evidence and [that] allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions,
thus it embodies a zone of choice within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant
or deny benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal.” Culbertson v. Shalala, 30
F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994).
In determining whether the Commissioner’s decision meets this standard, the court
considers “all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but it [does] not re-weigh the
evidence.” Wester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005). The court considers
both evidence that supports the Commissioner’s decision and evidence that detracts from
it. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010). The court must “search the
record for evidence contradicting the [Commissioner’s] decision and give that evidence
appropriate weight when determining whether the overall evidence in support is
substantial.” Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing Cline v.
Sullivan, 939 F.2d 560, 564 (8th Cir. 1991)).
In evaluating the evidence in an appeal of a denial of benefits, the court must apply
a balancing test to assess any contradictory evidence. Sobania v. Sec’y of Health &
Human Servs., 879 F.2d 441, 444 (8th Cir. 1989). The court, however, does not
“reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ,” Baldwin, 349 F.3d at 555 (citing Bates v.
Chater, 54 F.3d 529, 532 (8th Cir. 1995)), or “review the factual record de novo.” Roe
v. Chater, 92 F.3d 672, 675 (8th Cir. 1996) (citing Naber v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 186, 188
(8th Cir. 1994)). Instead, if, after reviewing the evidence, the court finds it “possible to
draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents
the Commissioner’s findings, [the court] must affirm the [Commissioner’s] denial of
benefits.” Kluesner, 607 F.3d at 536 (quoting Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th
Cir. 2008)). This is true even in cases where the court “might have weighed the evidence
differently.” Culbertson, 30 F.3d at 939 (quoting Browning v. Sullivan, 958 F.2d 817,
822 (8th Cir. 1992)). The court may not reverse the Commissioner’s decision “merely
because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.” Baker v.
Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984); see Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789
(8th Cir. 2005) (“[A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal simply because
some evidence may support the opposite conclusion.”).
Review of Report and Recommendation
A district judge must review a magistrate judge’s R&R under the following
Within fourteen days after being served with a copy, any party may serve
and file written objections to such proposed findings and recommendations
as provided by rules of court. A judge of the court shall make a de novo
determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings
or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may
accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or
recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also
receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Thus, when a party objects to
any portion of an R&R, the district judge must undertake a de novo review of that portion.
Any portions of an R&R to which no objections have been made must be reviewed
under at least a “clearly erroneous” standard. See, e.g., Grinder v. Gammon, 73 F.3d
793, 795 (8th Cir. 1996) (noting that when no objections are filed “[the district court
judge] would only have to review the findings of the magistrate judge for clear error”).
As the Supreme Court has explained, “[a] finding is ‘clearly erroneous’ when although
there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the
definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Anderson v. City of
Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573-74 (1985) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co.,
333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). However, a district judge may elect to review an R&R under
a more-exacting standard even if no objections are filed:
Any party that desires plenary consideration by the Article III judge of any
issue need only ask. Moreover, while the statute does not require the judge
to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed, it does not preclude
further review by the district judge, sua sponte or at the request of a party,
under a de novo or any other standard.
Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985).
Davis applied for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381-1385 (Act), on June 25, 2013, alleging disability
beginning on that date due to degenerative disc disease, depressive disorder, anxiety
disorder, substance abuse disorder, CTS and eating disorder. See Doc. No. 15 at 2-3;
AR at 71-73. After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) applied the familiar
five-step evaluation and found that Davis was not disabled as defined in the Act.
Davis argues the ALJ erred in determining that she was not disabled because:
The ALJ failed to properly evaluate the work-related limitations
from examining physician Dr. Mark C. Taylor.
The ALJ’s RFC assessment was not supported by substantial medical
evidence from a treating or examining source.
The ALJ’s RFC assessment is flawed because the ALJ discounted
Davis’s subjective allegations without identifying inconsistencies
in the record as a whole.
See Doc. No. 12. Judge Mahoney addressed each argument separately, beginning with
Davis’ credibility and the credibility of her significant other, Walter Dolley. She then
addressed Dr. Taylor’s opinion followed by the medical evidence in support of the RFC.
With regard to Davis’ credibility, the ALJ found her allegations of disabling back
and shoulder pain to be inconsistent with her activities of daily living and other medical
evidence in the record, including objective medical evidence. AR at 76-80. He also
noted that her global assessment of functioning (GAF) scores reflected only moderate
symptoms and limitations (AR at 77, 80) and that her sporadic work history raised the
question of whether her current unemployment was “truly the result of medical
problems.” AR at 79. Judge Mahoney concluded these were all good reasons supported
by substantial evidence for discrediting Davis’ subjective allegations.
The ALJ gave Dolley’s statements limited weight for the same reasons. AR at 79.
He also noted that because Dolley is not medically trained, the accuracy of his statements
was questionable. Id. Judge Mahoney found these were good reasons supported by
substantial evidence for giving Dolley’s statements little weight. Doc. No. 15 at 9-10.
Judge Mahoney next considered the opinion of the consultative examiner, Dr.
Taylor. Dr. Taylor examined Davis in September 2013 and assigned the following
Sit, stand, and walk occasionally but would need to alternate as needed for
comfort due to back and right hip pain
Lift no more than twenty pounds “between knee and chest level on a rare to
occasional basis” and lift less than ten pounds “above shoulder level or below
Perform only occasional handling, gripping, and grasping with upper extremities
Cannot tolerate any repetitive use of the hands or any forceful grasping and
Can never wear gloves “due to bilateral hand numbness and tingling and pain”
Can never use tools or respirators
AR at 423-24. The ALJ gave only some weight to Dr. Taylor’s opinion, noting that his
exam was brief, he relied on Davis’ “subjective reports of symptoms, history of
treatment, and limitations” and that he (the ALJ) “found the claimant slightly more
limited” than Dr. Taylor had.1 AR at 80. Judge Mahoney found the ALJ did not err in
discounting Dr. Taylor’s opinion based on the reasons provided. Doc. No. 15 at 11-12.
Finally, with regard to medical evidence in support of the RFC, the ALJ gave
“substantial weight” to the state agency consultants’ opinions, but Judge Mahoney noted
that his RFC assessment “varied greatly from their opinions.” Id. at 13-14. The state
agency consultants found that Davis had the following limitations:
Sit, stand and walk for six hours in an eight-hour day without the need to shift
Frequently climb ladders, stairs and crawl
No problems stooping or kneeling
No manipulative limitations
Can lift 25 to 50 pounds
AR at 145-46; 159-61. However, the ALJ’s RFC assessment included the following
Stand and walk for only two hours in an eight-hour day
Occasionally climb stairs and never climb ladders
Occasionally kneel, stoop and crawl
No manipulative limitations with regard to right arm but can engage in only
frequent handling, fingering, and reaching with her left arm
Can lift 10 pounds
The ALJ mistakenly refers to the consultative examiner as Dr. Kuhnlein. While Dr. Kuhnlein
is in Dr. Taylor’s practice group, it was Dr. Taylor who performed the consultative examination
and signed the report. See Doc. No. 419-24.
AR at 75, 80. The ALJ attributed the difference in the limitations to new evidence in the
record that was not available to the state agency consultants. AR at 80. This evidence
consisted of Davis’ diagnosis of CTS in her left arm in March 2014 and evidence that
she regularly sought treatment for back pain after the state agency consultants issued their
opinions. Doc. No. 15 at 14 (citing AR at 516, 523, 582, 640, 653).
Judge Mahoney concluded that limitations associated with Davis’ degenerative disc
disease were supported by some medical evidence, including Dr. Taylor’s and the state
agency medical consultants’ opinions. Id. at 14-15. However, with regard to limitations
associated with Davis’ CTS, Judge Mahoney found that the record lacked supporting
medical evidence. Id. at 15. Judge Mahoney noted the state agency medical consultants
did not provide any manipulative limitations because they did not find Davis’ CTS to be
a severe impairment. Id. This was excused because Davis had not alleged CTS in her
disability application and there was little evidence in the record that she had wrist and
arm problems at the time the state agency consultants reviewed the records and issued
With regard to the ALJ’s finding that Davis suffered from CTS in her left upper
extremity, Judge Mahoney stated that the only medical opinion evaluating Davis’
limitations with regard to CTS came from Dr. Taylor. Id. at 16. The ALJ discounted
Dr. Taylor’s opinion with regard to handling and fingering, finding that Davis was less
limited, i.e., could handle frequent, rather than occasional, handling and fingering. Id.
The only other medical evidence the ALJ relied on to support this opinion was: (1) a June
2013 record in which Davis did not report left wrist pain when she was hospitalized for
abdominal pain and vomiting and (2) objective tests showing “grips were 4/5 but
symmetrical and she was able to fist, oppose, and fully extend,” although could not do
so repetitively and (3) a record from March 2014 indicating she demonstrated “clinical
signs of left [CTS]” but “no cervical radiculopathy or peripheral neuropathy.” Id. (citing
AR at 76-77).
Judge Mahoney concluded that the ALJ’s limitations related to CTS were not
supported by “some medical evidence” because there was no medical source or opinion
supporting Davis’ ability to perform frequent handling and fingering with CTS. Id. at
16. Moreover, the VE’s testimony was also flawed because the three jobs identified by
the VE that Davis could perform all require frequent handling and fingering. Id. at 1617.
Therefore, Judge Mahoney recommends the case be remanded for further
development of the record with regard to the effects of Davis’ CTS in her left upper
extremity, which may include providing updated treatment notes to a state agency medical
consultant to review and reassess Davis’ work-related limitations. Id.
Because the parties did not object to the R&R, I have reviewed it for clear error.
Judge Mahoney applied the appropriate legal standards in concluding that the RFC was
not supported by some medical evidence with regard to the effects of Davis’ left upper
extremity CTS on her ability to work. Therefore, I find no error – clear or otherwise –
in her recommendation. As such, I adopt the R&R in its entirety.
For the reasons set forth herein:
I accept Judge Mahoney’ R&R (Doc. No. 15) without modification. See
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
Pursuant to Judge Mahoney’s recommendation:
The Commissioner’s determination that Davis was not disabled is
reversed and this matter is remanded to the Commissioner for
further proceedings as described by Judge Mahoney.
Judgment shall enter in favor of Davis and against the Commissioner.
If Davis wishes to request an award of attorney's fees and costs under
the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412, an
application may be filed up until 30 days after the judgment becomes
“not appealable,” i.e., 30 days after the 60-day time for appeal has
See Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 296 (1993); 28
U.S.C. §§ 2412(d)(1)(B), (d)(2)(G).
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 31st day of August, 2017.
Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge
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