Anderson v. Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM Opinion and Order re 1 Amended Complaint filed by Jessica M Anderson. The Court affirms the decision of the ALJ. Signed by Chief Magistrate Judge CJ Williams on 5/18/2017. (pac)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF IOWA
JESSICA M. ANDERSON,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND
The plaintiff, Jessica M. Anderson (claimant), seeks judicial review of a final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying claimant’s
application for supplemental security income, under Title XVI of the Social Security Act,
42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1385.
For the reasons that follow, the Court affirms the
For this background, the Court relied on the administrative record (AR) and the
Joint Stipulation of Facts (Doc. 12). Claimant was born in 1978 and she was 36 years
old at the time of the 2015 hearing. (AR 33, 43, 39). Claimant has no past relevant
work, although she has episodically and inconsistently worked for short periods of time.
(AR 42, 45-47, 72, 91).
Claimant filed her application on July 8, 2013, with an alleged onset date of August
31, 2000, but amended the alleged onset date to May 23, 2012, at the hearing. (AR 25,
62, 329). Claimant alleged she was disabled due to bipolar disorder, manic depression,
anxiety, attention deficit disorder, multiple personalities, and short-term memory loss.
In 2013, the Commissioner denied claimant’s application on initial
consideration and again upon reconsideration. (AR 25, 111-34). On June 1, 2015,
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Cynthia K. Hale held a hearing on claimant’s case. (AR
39-69). On November 4, 2015, the ALJ found claimant was not disabled. (AR 25-34).
On August 26, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-6). The ALJ’s decision
thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107
Claimant filed a complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court on October 11, 2016, seeking
review of the ALJ’s decision. On December 13, 2016, with the consent of the parties,
the Honorable Linda R. Reade, Chief United States District Court Judge, transferred this
case to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment.
(Doc. 11). Claimant filed her brief on March 1, 2017, (Doc. 13) and on April 11, 2017,
the Commissioner filed her brief (Doc. 14). On April 24, 2017, this case was deemed
fully briefed and ready for decision.
DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND THE BURDEN OF PROOF
A disability is defined as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity
by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be
expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). An
individual has a disability when, due to his physical or mental impairments, he “is not
only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work
experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists . . . in
significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions
of the country.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). If the claimant is able to
do work which exists in the national economy but is unemployed because of inability to
get work, lack of opportunities in the local area, economic conditions, employer hiring
practices, or other factors, the ALJ will still find the claimant not disabled.
To determine whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Act,
the Commissioner follows the five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in the
Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707-08 (8th Cir. 2007).
Commissioner will consider a claimant’s work activity. If the claimant is engaged in
substantial gainful activity, then the claimant is not disabled. “Substantial” work activity
involves physical or mental activities. “Gainful” activity is work done for pay or profit,
even if the claimant did not ultimately receive pay or profit.
Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, then the
Commissioner looks to the severity of the claimant’s physical and mental impairments.
If the impairments are not severe, then the claimant is not disabled. An impairment is
not severe if it does not significantly limit a claimant’s physical or mental ability to
perform basic work activities. Kirby, 500 F.3d at 707.
The ability to do basic work activities means the ability and aptitude necessary to
perform most jobs. These include: (1) physical functions such as walking, standing,
sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) capacities for
seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple
instructions; (4) use of judgment; (5) responding appropriately to supervision, co-
workers, and usual work situations; and (6) dealing with changes in a routine work
setting. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.921.
Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, then the Commissioner will
determine the medical severity of the impairment. If the impairment meets or equals one
of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations, then the claimant is
considered disabled regardless of age, education, and work experience.
Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 588 (8th Cir. 1998).
Fourth, if the claimant’s impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one
of the presumptively disabling impairments, then the Commissioner will assess the
claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC) and the demands of his past relevant work.
If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, then he is considered not disabled.
Past relevant work is any work the claimant performed within the past fifteen years of
his application that was substantial gainful activity and lasted long enough for the claimant
to learn how to do it. “RFC is a medical question defined wholly in terms of the
claimant’s physical ability to perform exertional tasks or, in other words, what the
claimant can still do despite his or her physical or mental limitations.” Lewis v. Barnhart,
353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The
RFC is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. The claimant is responsible for
providing the evidence the Commissioner will use to determine the RFC. Id. If a
claimant retains enough RFC to perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not
Fifth, if the claimant’s RFC as determined in Step Four will not allow the claimant
to perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show there
is other work the claimant can do, given the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work
experience. The Commissioner must show not only that the claimant’s RFC will allow
him or her to make the adjustment to other work, but also that other work exists in
significant numbers in the national economy. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584,
591 (8th Cir. 2004). If the claimant can make the adjustment, then the Commissioner
will find the claimant not disabled. At Step Five, the Commissioner has the responsibility
of developing the claimant’s complete medical history before making a determination
about the existence of a disability. The burden of persuasion to prove disability remains
on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).
If after these five steps, the ALJ has determined the claimant is disabled, but there
is medical evidence of substance use disorders, the ALJ must decide if that substance use
was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.
§423(d)(2)(C). The ALJ must then evaluate the extent of the claimant’s limitations
without the substance use. Id. If the limitations would not be disabling, then the disorder
is a contributing factor material to determining disability, and the claimant is not disabled.
THE ALJ’S FINDINGS
The ALJ made the following findings at each step.
At Step One, the ALJ found that claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since July 8, 2013. (AR 27).
At Step Two, the ALJ found that claimant had the following severe impairments:
bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse disorder in
At Step Three, the ALJ found that claimant did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the
listed impairments. (AR 27-29).
At Step Four, the ALJ found that claimant had “the residual functional capacity to
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional
The claimant would be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work tasks.
She should be limited to an environment that demanded little use of
judgment and few changes in workplace procedures. She would be unable
to do fast-paced work. She would be unable to work with members of the
public or with public customer demands. She would be limited to only
occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors.
(AR 29). The ALJ also determined that claimant could not perform past relevant work.
Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ concluded that given claimant’s age, education,
work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in
significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform.
Relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found claimant could perform
the following jobs: Laundry worker, Folder, and Marker. (Id.).
THE SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE STANDARD
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, 353 F.3d at 645. The Eighth Circuit Court
of Appeals 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) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
In determining whether the Commissioner’s decision meets this standard, the court
considers “all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but we do not re-weigh the
evidence.” Vester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted).
The court considers both evidence which 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, 939 F.2d at 564).
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) (citation omitted) (“[A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal
simply because some evidence may support the opposite conclusion.”).
Claimant alleges the ALJ erred in three ways:
1. The ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment is not supported by
substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. (Doc. 13, at 1-5);
2. The ALJ submitted an inaccurate hypothetical to the vocational expert and the
vocational expert testimony in this case does not constitute substantial evidence
upon which the ALJ can rely. (Doc. 13, at 5-7); and
3. The ALJ committed reversible error while evaluating claimant’s credibility.
(Doc. 13, at 7-8).
The Court will address each of these argument in turn.
Whether Substantial Evidence Supported the ALJ’s Decision
Claimant argues that substantial evidence did not support the ALJ’s decision
because she did not afford claimant’s treating physician Dr. San Lee’s opinion controlling
weight. (Doc. 13, at 1-5). Dr. Lee was claimant’s treating psychiatrist and had been treating
her since 2007. (AR 734). Dr. Lee opined that claimant’s symptoms of excessive worries,
irritability, fear of others, anxiety, and insecurities would limit her day-to-day activities and
claimant’s social anxiety would cause her to miss work more than three times per month.
(AR 31). Dr. Lee also opined that claimant had marked difficulties in social functioning and
in concentration, persistence and pace. (Id.). Dr. Lee opined that claimant had no ability to
maintain attention for two hours or maintain regular attendance and be punctual. (AR 866).
Dr. Lee also opined that claimant could not work in close proximity to others, but had a fair
ability to get along with co-workers and peers, respond appropriately to changes in work
routine, and deal with normal work stress. (AR 866-67). He also opined that claimant could
“tolerate criticism or opinions by others for a short period of time, but will have difficulty on
a sustained basis.” (AR 868). Finally, Dr. Lee opined that claimant had marked limitations
in social functioning, but had a fair ability to interact appropriately with the general public,
maintain socially appropriate behavior, travel in unfamiliar places, and use public
transportation. (AR 869).
Generally, it is for an ALJ to determine the weight to be afforded to the opinions of
medical professionals, and “to resolve disagreements among physicians.” Cline v. Colvin,
771 F.3d 1098, 1103 (8th Cir. 2014) (quotation omitted). An ALJ is required to give
“controlling weight” to a treating-source’s medical opinion if it is “well-supported by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with
the other substantial evidence.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). See also Martise v. Astrue, 641
F.3d 909, 925 (8th Cir. 2011) (holding that an ALJ must give “substantial weight” to a
treating physician, but may discount that weight if the opinion is inconsistent with other
medical evidence). An ALJ is not, however, required to explicitly discuss every factor in 20
C.F.R. § 416.927. See Molnar v. Colvin, No. 4:12-CV-1228-SPM, 2013 WL 3929645, at
*2 (E.D. Mo. July 29, 2013) (“[A]lthough the ALJ did not explicitly discuss every factor of
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) [identical to §416.927(c)] in evaluating the opinions of Plaintiff’s
treating sources, the ALJ was not required to do so.”) (unpublished) (citing Wheeler v. Apfel,
224 F.3d 891, 895 n.3 (8th Cir. 1998) for the proposition “the ALJ need not discuss every
piece of evidence submitted, and failure to discuss certain evidence does not mean that it was
The ALJ afforded Dr. Lee’s opinion little weight. (AR 32). The ALJ indicated that
Dr. Lee’s own medical records were inconsistent with his opinions. (AR 31-32). The ALJ
found Dr. Lee’s treatment notes reflect mental status examinations “free of adverse mental
status signs other than some changes in mood.” (AR 31). The ALJ noted that the medical
records show claimant “has demonstrated stable, normal mental status findings but for some
changes in mood—the most significant of which corresponded to a period of non-compliance
with treatment.” (AR 32). The ALJ found this demonstrated that “claimant’s treatment
regimen is successful and would support her ability to engage in substantial gainful activity
within the parameters” of the residual functional capacity assessment the ALJ found
There is no absolute rule that an ALJ must accept a treating physician’s opinion if
it conflicts with other medical evidence, including the treating physician’s own records.
Rather, the ALJ is called upon to examine the entire record, consider all of the medical
evidence, and assign weight to the evidence in light of the entire record. An ALJ may
give the opinions from non-treating, non-examining sources more weight than a treating
source’s medical opinion when they are also supported by “better or more thorough
medical evidence.” Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1014 (8th Cir. 2000) (internal
citation omitted). It is, in the end, the ALJ’s duty to assess all medical opinions and
determine the weight given to these opinions. See Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 725
(8th Cir. 2002) (“It is the ALJ’s function to resolve conflicts among ‘the various treating
and examining physicians.’”) (quoting Bentley v. Shalala, 52 F.3d 784, 785 (8th Cir.
Whether the ALJ’s decision to afford little weight to Dr. Lee’s opinions was within
the ALJ’s zone of choice, therefore, depends on the degree to which there was other
evidence to support the ALJ’s decision. Here, the ALJ reviewed Dr. Lee’s opinions at
length. (AR 31-32). In assessing the weight to be given Dr. Lee’s opinions, the ALJ
relied in part on the conclusion that Dr. Lee’s treatment notes were inconsistent with the
limitations he opined were present. As noted, Dr. Lee repeatedly found claimant’s status to
be stable and mild, and reflected only mood fluctuations. (AR 792, 823-33, 841, 845, 857).
Moreover, claimant’s complaints often focused on situational factors, such as lack of income
or being anxious to be found disabled. (AR 31, 741, 822-23). When claimant experienced
a particular period of more severe symptoms, it was when she was non-complaint with her
medications. (AR 32).
The Court finds its own review of Dr. Lee’s treatment notes supports the ALJ’s
conclusions. There was nothing in Dr. Lee’s treatment notes suggesting claimant would be
unable to work. Indeed, Dr. Lee has never treated claimant during a period when she did
work, and his notes do not reflect any discussion about her ability to work or deal with her
anxiety in a work setting. See, e.g., Martise, 641 F.3d at 926 (affirming ALJ’s decision to
give treating physician’s medical source statement less weight when such was unsupported by
medical evidence, including his own treatment notes, and consisted of checkmarks); Davidson
v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 843 (8th Cir. 2009) (“It is permissible for an ALJ to discount an
opinion of a treating physician that is inconsistent with the physician’s clinical treatment
notes.”); Clevenger v. Social Sec. Admin., 567 F.3d 971, 975 (8th Cir. 2009) (affirming
ALJ’s decision not to follow opinion of treating physician that was not corroborated by
treatment notes); Leckenby v. Astrue, 487 F.3d 626, 632-33 (8th Cir. 2007) (holding that a
treating physician’s opinion does not automatically control or obviate need to evaluate record
as whole and upholding the ALJ’s decision to discount the treating physician’s medical-source
statement where limitations were never mentioned in numerous treatment records or
supported by any explanation (internal quotations omitted)); Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d
934, 937 (8th Cir. 2006) (where treating physician’s notes are inconsistent with the whole
record, the ALJ may elect to not give controlling weight to the treating source in making the
assessment); Prosch, 201 F.3d at 1013 (ALJ may discount or even disregard the opinion of
a treating physician where a treating physician’s clinical treatment notes are inconsistent with
the physician’s opinion); Lewis v. Colvin, 973 F. Supp.2d 985, 1010 (E.D. Mo. 2013)
(finding ALJ did not err in discounting weight afforded to treating physician’s opinions
regarding limitations when her treatment notes never reflected such findings or limitations).
The ALJ also relied on the opinions of state agency psychological consultants, Drs.
Aaron Quinn and John Tedesco. (AR 28-32). Those consulting doctors found claimant was
not disabled and could work. (AR 115-122; 128-134). An ALJ may consider state agency
physicians’ opinions and may rely upon them in making her findings. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(e); see also Casey v. Astrue, 503 F.3d 687, 697 (8th Cir. 2007) (holding that it
is well settled that an ALJ may consider the opinion of an independent medical advisor
as one factor in determining the nature and severity of a claimant’s impairment) (quotation
omitted). The ALJ properly discussed how the state agency psychological consultants’
opinions were consistent with the record as a whole. See Hacker, 459 F.3d at 939 (having
determined the treating physician’s opinion was inconsistent with substantial evidence in
the record, the ALJ is clearly authorized to consider the opinions of other physicians).
See also Heino v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 873, 880 (8th Cir. 2009) (ALJ can properly credit
other medical evaluations in the record over that of the treating physician where those
assessments are supported by evidence within the record) (citation omitted). The opinions
of non-examining state agency consulting physicians normally cannot constitute
“substantial evidence” in support of an ALJ’s decision when those opinions directly
conflict with the opinions of treating or examining sources.
See, e.g., Shontos v.
Barnhart, 328 F.3d 418, 427 (8th Cir. 2003) (“The opinions of non-treating practitioners
who have attempted to evaluate the claimant without examination do not normally
constitute substantial evidence on the record as a whole.”) (citing Jenkins v. Apfel, 196
F.3d 922, 925 (8th Cir. 1999)); Dixon v. Barnhart, 324 F.3d 997, 1002-03 (8th Cir.
2003) (holding that “[g]iven the contradicting recommendations in the record and the
insufficiently developed record surrounding Dixon’s cardiac problems, [the nonexamining consulting physician’s] opinion does not constitute substantial record evidence
that Dixon can perform medium work.”) (citing Nevland v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 853, 858
(8th Cir. 2000)). When, however, assessments of state agency medical consultants are
consistent with other medical evidence in the record, these assessments can provide
substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s RFC assessment.
See Stormo, 377 F.3d at
807-08. It is the ALJ’s duty to weigh the medical evidence, and here that is exactly what
the ALJ did in resolving inconsistencies between the opinions of Dr. Lee, the state agency
psychological consultants, and the medical record as a whole. Estes, 275 F.3d at 725
(“It is the ALJ’s function to resolve conflicts among the various treating and examining
physicians.”) (internal quotation marks and quotation omitted).
Finally, in assessing the weight to afford Dr. Lee’s opinions, the ALJ compared the
limitations Dr. Lee believed claimant had against claimant’s daily activities. (AR 28, 30-32).
As described in detail in Section (C) below, the ALJ found claimant’s daily activities were
inconsistent with the limitations Dr. Lee opined were present. The Court finds support in the
record for the ALJ’s conclusion, and therefore finds there is support in the record for her to
discount Dr. Lee’s opinions.
Claimant argues that the ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment was
“diametrically opposed to the opinions of [claimant’s] treating psychiatrist when she states
that ‘. . . claimant’s treatment regimen is successful’” because “Dr. Lee has consistently
reported that plaintiff’s prognosis is poor.” (Doc. 13, at 7). That assertion is inaccurate, and
therefore claimant’s argument is unpersuasive. In the Mental Residual Functional Capacity
Questionnaire Dr. Lee filled out in 2012, he opined that claimant’s prognosis was “poor to
very poor without treatment” but “fair with treatment.” (AR 732). In the 2015 questionnaire,
Dr. Lee listed her prognosis as “poor,” but did not elaborate regarding the effect of treatment
on claimant’s prognosis. (AR 864). Dr. Lee did attach a note in response to Question No.
5, which asked for “treatment and response,” and that note indicated that “she has improved
enough to be functional with her daily routines at present.” (AR 865). Accordingly, there is
support in Dr. Lee’s own records for the ALJ to conclude that claimant responded well to
treatment when she took her medications.
Claimant argues that the ALJ did not incorporate in her residual functional capacity
assessment “any of the limitations determined by [claimant’s] treating psychiatrist, Dr.
Lee.” (Doc. 13, at 8). That is also inaccurate. Dr. Lee opined that claimant had difficulties
in concentration, persistence and pace, such that it would impair her ability to concentrate,
work at pace, and complete tasks in a timely manner. (AR 31, 870). The ALJ accounted for
this in her residual functional capacity assessment by limiting claimant to simple, routine, and
repetitive work tasks and that she would not be able to perform fast-paced work. (AR 29).
Dr. Lee opined that claimant had difficulties in social functioning, that “seriously limit, but
not preclude[ ]” her from working in close proximity to others, and accept instructions, and
respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors. (AR 734-43, 866-67). The ALJ
accounted for this in her residual functional capacity assessment by limiting claimant from
working with members of the public or with public customer demands and to only occasional
interaction with co-workers and supervisors. (AR 29).
In sum, the Court finds the ALJ did not err in assigning little weight to Dr. Lee’s
opinions because the ALJ relied on other substantial medical evidence in the record as a
whole, including Dr. Lee’s own records. The ALJ did not err in finding Dr. Lee’s
treatment notes were generally inconsistent with the limitations reflected in Dr. Lee’s
opinions. Ultimately, it is not for this Court to re-weigh the medical evidence or resolve
conflicts between medical professionals. So long as the ALJ’s analysis is reasonable, this
Court cannot reverse the Commissioner’s decision. See Haggard v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 591,
594 (8th Cir. 1999) (internal citation omitted) (“We may not reverse the Commissioner’s
decision merely because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have
supported a contrary outcome.”). The Court finds there was substantial evidence in the
record as a whole for the ALJ to act within her zone of choice in assigning little weight
to Dr. Lee’s opinions.
Whether the ALJ Submitted an Inaccurate Hypothetical Question Such that the
ALJ Could Not Rely on the Vocational Expert’s Opinion
Claimant argues the ALJ submitted an inaccurate hypothetical question to the
vocational expert because the question did not incorporate all of the limitations that Dr.
Lee opined were required. (Doc. 13, at 8-10). Claimant argues the ALJ therefore could
not rely on the vocational expert’s opinion that there were jobs claimant could work
because when those limitations are considered, there were no jobs claimant could work.
(Doc. 13, at 9-10).
Claimant’s argument here is dependent upon the Court finding the ALJ erred in
determining claimant’s residual functional capacity assessment. Claimant does not argue
the hypothetical question was erroneous in any other way. Because the Court has found
substantial evidence in the record as a whole supported the ALJ’s residual functional
capacity assessment, the Court finds the hypothetical question based on that assessment
was likewise not in error. A hypothetical question must include only the limitations found
credible by the ALJ and supported by the medical record. See, e.g., Howe v. Astrue,
499 F.3d 835, 841–42 (8th Cir. 2007); Pertuis v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 1006, 1007 (8th Cir.
1998). Accordingly, the Court finds claimant’s argument regarding the hypothetical
question posed to the vocational expert to be without merit.
Whether the ALJ Erred in Her Credibility Determination of Claimant
Claimant argues the ALJ erred in discounting claimant’s credibility. (Doc. 13, at
Claimant asserts the ALJ found claimant lacked credibility because of her
“‘history of intermittent work’ and lack of substantial earnings” and because claimant’s
daily activities were “not as limited to the extent one would expect” given Dr. Lee’s
opinion about claimant’s limitations.
(Doc. 13, at 10).
Claimant argues that her
“inability to hold a job or earn substantial monies is well explained by her limited
education, intellectual deficiencies and long standing psychological impairments and
Claimant also argues that claimant’s “extremely limited daily
activities . . . in no way reflect the capability of performing substantial and gainful
employment on a regular and continuing basis.” (Doc. 13, at 11).
In evaluating a claimant’s credibility, an ALJ must consider the entire record
including the medical records, statements by claimant and third parties, and factors such
as: (1) the claimant’s daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the
pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects
of medication; and (5) functional restrictions. Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322
(8th Cir. 1984). In arriving at a credibility determination, an ALJ is not required to
discuss every piece of evidence submitted. Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 966 (8th
Cir. 2010). “[T]he duty of the court is to ascertain whether the ALJ considered all of
the evidence relevant to the plaintiff’s complaints . . . under the Polaski standards and
whether the evidence so contradicts the plaintiff’s subjective complaints that the ALJ
could discount his or her testimony as not credible.” Brown v. Astrue, 4:08-CV-483
CAS, 2009 WL 88049, at *8 (E.D. Mo. Jan. 12, 2009) (quoting Masterson v. Barnhart,
363 F.3d 731, 738-39 (8th Cir. 2004)). The ALJ must “specifically demonstrate in his
decision that he considered all of the evidence.” Id. (citing Masterson, 363 F.3d at 738;
Cline v. Sullivan, 939 F.2d 560, 565 (8th Cir. 1991)). In the end, however, “[t]he
determination of a claimant’s credibility is for the Commissioner, and not the Court, to
make.” Id. (citing Tellez v. Barnhart, 403 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 2005); Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1218 (8th Cir. 2001)).
Here, the ALJ found claimant’s work history detracted from her credibility. (AR
32). The ALJ noted that claimant’s work records show “intermittent work” and her
“earnings fell well below the level of substantial gainful activity” which the ALJ
concluded “suggest the claimant is not motivated to work and the alleged inability to
work does not stem from any impairment.” (Id.). A review of claimant’s testimony at
the 2015 hearing supports the ALJ’s credibility finding in this regard. At the hearing,
claimant last worked “[m]aybe 10, 7, 10 years ago” cleaning motel rooms, a job from
which she was fired because “[t]hey told me that I was just not doing my job right, that
they—what they said was I was all over the place.” (AR 45). She was fired from a
newspaper where she put sections together because she was “too unorganized.” (Id.).
Claimant could not remember what she did for a temporary agency or why she got fired
from her job stocking shelves at Dollar General. (AR 46). She was fired from a nursing
home after being there for two hours because “[i]t didn’t work out.” (Id.). This
testimony does not show any indication that claimant was unable to work or was fired
because of anxiety, excessive worries, fear of others, insecurities, issues with social
functioning, concentration, persistence, pace or punctuality, or because claimant could not
work in close proximity to others, or tolerate criticism or opinions by others. Moreover, the
Commissioner is correct that the Social Security Administration previously found claimant
was not disabled prior to May 23, 2012, and claimant did not request to reopen that finding,
so claimant cannot now assert her disabilities kept her from working prior to May 2012.
See Aguiniga v. Colvin, 833 F.3d 896, 901-01 (8th Cir. 2016) (discussing claim
preclusion doctrines in administrative proceedings).
The ALJ also acted within her zone of choice in viewing claimant’s daily activities
as inconsistent with her claimed limitations. Claimant asserts that her anxiety and mental
impairments prevents her from having social contact and engaging in conduct that
requires attention and concentration. Yet, claimant performed housework like cleaning,
dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, and mopping, attended school conferences for her
daughter, prepared meals, sometimes did the grocery shopping and other shopping, and
did the laundry. (AR 47-48). The ALJ also noted that the medical records do not reflect
claimant having difficulty in social interactions with treatment staff and reflected that she
was able to go shopping and attend medical appointments. (AR 28). Finally, the ALJ
noted that claimant was fully able to take care of herself, in such matters as “bathing,
dressing, personal hygiene, feeding and toileting.” (AR 30).
The Court finds the ALJ had a basis in the record, therefore, to conclude that
claimant’s “capacity to perform these tasks independently is a strong indication that she
remains able to perform the requisite physical and mental tasks that are part of everyday
basic work activity.” (AR 30). Although Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decisions
provide “mixed signals” regarding how ALJs are to consider a claimant’s daily activities
in making credibility determinations, the case law still provides that ALJs may consider
daily activities in assessing a claimant’s credibility. See, e.g., Andrews v. Colvin, 791
F.3d 923, 929 (8th Cir. 2015) (permitting an ALJ to discount a fibromyalgia plaintiff’s
credibility in part based upon the claimant’s daily activities, including the ability to cook,
clean, drive, shop, and take care of personal grooming and hygiene); Clevenger, 567
F.3d at 976 (noting the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has sent “mixed signals”
concerning the importance of daily activities, but finding the daily activities in that case—
doing laundry, ironing, washing dishes, driving, changing sheets, preparing meals,
attending church, and visiting friends and relatives—supported an ALJ’s decision to
discredit a plaintiff’s assertions of disability).
As a general matter, credibility determinations “are the province of the ALJ, and
as long as ‘good reasons and substantial evidence’ support the ALJ’s evaluation of
credibility,” the Court will defer to her decision. See Julin v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 1082,
1086 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005)).
Furthermore, an ALJ “may decline to credit a claimant’s subjective complaints ‘if the
evidence as a whole is inconsistent with the claimant’s testimony.’” Julin, 826 F.3d at
1086 (quoting Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006)). In short, the ALJ
conducted a proper analysis of claimant’s subjective complaints; it is not this Court’s
position to re-evaluate and re-weigh the same evidence. The ALJ was in a better position
than the court to assess claimant’s credibility, Brown v. Chater, 87 F.3d 963, 966 (8th
Cir. 1996), and was not required to accept her subjective complaints. Here, the Court
finds the ALJ reasonably assessed claimant’s credibility and the evidence on the record
as a whole.
After a thorough review of the entire record, the Court concludes that substantial
evidence in the record as a whole supports the ALJ’s decision to find claimant was not
disabled. Accordingly, the Court affirms the decision of the ALJ. Judgment shall be
entered in favor of the Commissioner and against claimant.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 18th day of May, 2017.
Chief United States Magistrate Judge
Northern District of Iowa
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