Wells v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION : IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is AFFIRMED. Signed by Magistrate Judge Shirley Padmore Mensah on 9/27/16. (ARL)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
SHEILA P. WELLS,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Case No. 2:15-CV-64-SPM
This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of
Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying in part the
application of Plaintiff Sheila P. Wells (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”)
under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (the “Act”). The parties
consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
(Doc. 13). Because I find the decision denying benefits was supported by substantial evidence, I
will affirm the Commissioner’s denial of Plaintiff’s application.
FACTUAL BACKGROUND 1
Plaintiff was born April 20, 1959. (Tr. 37). On April 22, 2015, Plaintiff testified at a
hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 37-56). On November 10, 2012, at the age of 53, Plaintiff suffered a
stroke. (Tr. 37). Since then, she has had headaches a couple of times a week that involve extreme
The following is not intended to be an exhaustive summary of the record. The Court focuses on
the facts that were addressed by the parties and that are most relevant to the issues raised by the
pressure, lasting between a couple of hours and over a day. (Tr. 40-41). She has also had
memory problems since the stroke; she will put something on the stove and walk away and
forget it, and she has trouble remembering conversations and instructions. (Tr. 41). A few
months after the stroke, she developed weakness and pain in both of her arms and shoulders. (Tr.
41-42). She has trouble sleeping because of the pain. (Tr. 43). She has had physical therapy that
made her shoulder pain worse, and injections that helped somewhat. (Tr. 44). She took narcotic
pain medications, but stopped because she was getting immune to them. (Tr. 45). She uses ice
and heat on her shoulder several times a week. (Tr. 46). She can lift about the weight of a gallon
of milk in each hand. (Tr. 44-45). Plaintiff also has had problems with her left leg since a
“botched” vein surgery. (Tr. 46-47). Her leg burns every day, and it swells up when she is on her
feet for less than an hour. (Tr. 47-48). She has carpal tunnel syndrome in her left hand and still
has numbness two or three times a day. (Tr. 48-49). She has a lot of pain in her lower back,
especially when bending or squatting. (Tr. 50).
Since her stroke, Plaintiff has had weekly therapy sessions. (Tr. 50). She also sees a
psychiatrist every two months. (Tr. 55). She gets overwhelmed very easily, and when she cannot
remember or understand something, she has anxiety attacks, gets depressed, and starts crying.
The crying has improved with medication and occurs four times a week. (Tr. 51-52). Plaintiff has
depression and anxiety and takes medications for them. (Tr. 52). She fears drowning when taking
a bath and fears accidents when in a car. (Tr. 53). She gets confused easily and does not like
being in crowds. (Tr. 56).
Plaintiff’s medical records show that on November 11, 2012, Plaintiff suffered a
subarachnoid hemorrhage and spent nine days in the hospital. (Tr. 353-54). In the eighteen
months following her stroke, Plaintiff frequently sought treatment for a number of physical and
mental problems, including anxiety, fear of having another stroke, depression, crying episodes,
problems sleeping, balance problems, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, lower extremity
weakness, and bilateral shoulder and arm pain. In addition to seeing her primary care physician,
a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a physical therapist, she has had weekly therapy sessions with a
counselor, Betty Bockhorst, M.A., L.P.C.
The record contains opinion evidence from two sources. On September 18, 2013, state
agency consulting psychologist Mark Altomari, Ph.D., completed a mental residual functional
capacity assessment. (Tr. 76-78). Dr. Altomari found that Plaintiff had the ability to understand,
remember, and carry out simple instructions; could relate appropriately to coworkers and
supervisors; could adapt to most changes in a competitive work setting; and could make simple
work-related decisions. (Tr. 78).
On January 16, 2015, Plaintiff’s counselor, Betty Bockhorst, completed a Medical Source
Statement of Ability to Do Work-Related Activities (Mental) for Plaintiff. Ms. Bockhorst opined
that Plaintiff had extreme limitations in the ability to understand and remember complex
instructions; moderate limitations in the ability to understand and remember simple instructions,
carry out complex instructions, make judgments on complex work decisions, interact
appropriately with the public, and respond appropriately to usual work situations and to changes
in a routine work setting; and mild or no limitations in the ability to carry out simple instructions,
make judgments on simple work-related decisions, and interact appropriately with supervisors
and co-workers. (Tr. 108-09). Ms. Bockhorst noted that she had to write down any suggestions
given to Plaintiff and that if Plaintiff did not have a suggestion written down, she would not
remember it. (Tr. 109). Ms. Bockhorst also opined that Plaintiff would be off-task 25% of the
time or more; would miss work more than four days per month; and would need to take
unscheduled breaks three to four times a day. (Tr. 109-10). She noted that the symptoms causing
a need for breaks were panic attacks, crying spells, anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 110). She
opined that Plaintiff’s disability began November 10, 2012. (Tr. 110).
On January 10, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that she had been unable to work
since November 10, 2012 due to depression, anxiety, a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage, left leg
nerve damage, hyperglycemia, memory loss, and fatigue. (Tr. 200-01, 215). Plaintiff’s claim was
initially denied. (Tr. 85-89). On May 18, 2015, following a hearing, the ALJ issued a partially
favorable decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled prior to April 19, 2014, but was disabled
after that date. (Tr. 25). On August 20, 2015, the Social Security Administration’s Appeals
Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative
remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration.
STANDARD FOR DETERMINING DISABILITY UNDER THE ACT
To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he or she
is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec’y of Health
& Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines as disabled
a person who is unable “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 twelve months.” 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The
impairment must be “of such severity that [the claimant] 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 the national economy, regardless of whether such
work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for
him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step
evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th
Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines
whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, then he is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the
Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any
impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant’s] physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he
is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step
Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals one of
the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the
Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of
the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.
Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant’s “residual functional
capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore
v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can
return to his past relevant work, by comparing the claimant’s RFC with the physical and mental
demands of the claimant’s past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f);
McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if
the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner
considers the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the
claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot
make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.
Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he is disabled.
Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that,
given the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of
other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d
1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012).
THE ALJ’S DECISION
Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ here found that Plaintiff had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 10, 2012, the alleged onset date; that
Plaintiff had the severe impairments of cerebrovascular accident, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and bilateral shoulder impingement; and that Plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of
the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 14-15). The ALJ found
that after November 10, 2012, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20
C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that she could occasionally work overhead with her bilateral upper
extremities; could perform simple, routine tasks; could have occasional contact with the public;
and could tolerate occasional changes in a routine work setting. (Tr. 17). The ALJ found that
Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 23). Relying on the testimony of a
vocational expert, the ALJ found that prior to April 19, 2014 (Plaintiff’s 55th birthday), there
were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could
perform, including folding machine operator, garment sorter, and mail clerk. (Tr. 24). However,
the ALJ found that beginning on April 19, 2014, a finding of “disabled” was directed by Rule
202.06 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the “Grids”), 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 2. (Tr. 22-23). Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability prior to
April 19, 2014, but became disabled that date and continued to be disabled through the date of
his decision. (Tr. 25).
In her brief, Plaintiff argues generally that the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff was not
disabled prior to April 19, 2014 was not supported by substantial evidence, an argument that she
supports with a detailed description of her medical records prior to that date. Plaintiff also
appears to argue that Plaintiff’s age presented a “borderline” situation and that in applying the
Grids, the ALJ should have used the age range applicable to individuals over 55 even when
assessing the period when she had not yet reached age 55. In her reply brief, Plaintiff also argues
that the ALJ erred by applying the Grid without considering and giving weight to the nonexertional limitations in the opinion of her counselor, Betty Bockhorst.
A. Standard for Judicial Review
The decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed if it complies with the relevant legal
requirements and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g); 1383(c)(3); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Estes v. Barnhart, 275
F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002); Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009).
“Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1063 (8th Cir.
2012) (quoting Moore, 572 F.3d at 522). In determining whether substantial evidence supports
the Commissioner’s decision, the court considers both evidence that supports that decision and
evidence that detracts from that decision. Id. However, the court “‘do[es] not reweigh the
evidence presented to the ALJ, and [it] defer[s] to the ALJ’s determinations regarding the
credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reasons and
substantial evidence.’” Id. at 1064 (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir.
2006)). “‘If, after reviewing the record, the court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent
positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ’s findings, the court
must affirm the ALJ’s decision.’” Partee v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting
Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005)). The court “will not disturb the denial of
benefits so long as the ALJ’s decision falls within the available zone of choice.” Buckner v.
Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks omitted). “An ALJ’s decision is not
outside the zone of choice simply because [the reviewing court] might have reached a different
conclusion had [it] been the initial finder of fact.” Id.
B. The ALJ’s Treatment of Plaintiff’s Age
Plaintiff’s first specific argument is that in applying the Medical-Vocational Guidelines
(the “Grids”) to her claim, the ALJ did not properly consider the fact that she was in a
“borderline” age situation, such that the rule for persons aged 55 or older should have applied to
her entire claim, including the period when she had not reached the age of 55.
In applying the Grids, the ALJ must “consider [the claimant’s] chronological age in
combination with [the claimant’s] residual functional capacity, education, and work experience.”
20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(a). The regulations describe several age categories, including “person
closely approaching advanced age” (age 50-54) and “person of advanced age” (age 55 or older).
Id. § 404.1563(d), (e). The Grids state that an individual closely approaching advanced age (age
50-54) who is limited to light work, with no additional limitations, and who has Plaintiff’s
education and skill level, is considered not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 2, Rule 202.14. The Grids state that an individual of advanced age (55 or older) who is
limited to light work and who has Plaintiff’s education and skill level is considered disabled. See
20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, Rule 202.06.
In assessing the period before Plaintiff turned 55, the ALJ did not rely on the Grids,
because Plaintiff had additional limitations that prevented her from performing all of the
demands of light work. Instead, he relied on the testimony of a vocational expert who testified
that there were jobs existing in significant numbers that a hypothetical individual of Plaintiff’s
age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform. (Tr. 24-25). In assessing the period
after Plaintiff turned 55, however, the ALJ did apply the Grids and found Plaintiff was disabled.
Plaintiff suggests that the ALJ should have treated the period before she turned 55 as if
she had already turned 55. As Plaintiff points out, the regulations provide:
We will use each of the age categories that applies to you during the
period for which we must determine if you are disabled. We will not apply the age
categories mechanically in a borderline situation. If you are within a few days to a
few months of reaching an older age category, and using the older age category
would result in a determination or decision that you are disabled, we will consider
whether to use the older age category after evaluating the overall impact of all the
factors of your case.
Id. § 404.1563(b) (emphasis added). Plaintiff appears to suggest that she was in a “borderline”
age situation and that therefore the ALJ should have applied the Grid rule applicable to
individuals aged 55 or over to the entire disability period—a period that began more than
seventeen months prior to her 55th birthday. That argument is without merit. The regulation on
which Plaintiff relies describes an individual who is “within a few days to a few months of
reaching an older age category.” Id. That plainly does not encompass a situation in which the
claimant is almost a year and a half away from reaching an older age category. In addition,
Plaintiff’s argument that a 53-year-old should be treated as someone in the “55 and older
category” instead of as someone in the “50-54” category would expand the borderline age
concept to a degree that would render the age categories in the Grids meaningless. Moreover,
Plaintiff’s argument is foreclosed by Eighth Circuit precedent. The Eighth Circuit has noted that
“there is no bright line for how many months constitute a borderline case,” but that “eight
months is too distant to be borderline.” See Byes v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 913, 918 (8th Cir. 2012). If
eight months is too distant to be borderline, seventeen months is as well.
Moreover, the Hearings, Appeals and Litigation Law Manual of the Social Security
Administration (HALLEX) makes it clear that Plaintiff’s situation is not one where the
borderline age policy applies. Here, Plaintiff is not seeking to use the borderline age policy to
avoid a complete denial of benefits, but instead to permit her to have a more favorable onset date
and expand the number of months for which she can receive retroactive benefits. HALLEX I-22-42(A) indicates provides that the borderline age policy may not be used for that purpose. See
HALLEX I-2-2-42(A), 2016 WL 1167001, at *1 (last updated March 25, 2016) (“NOTE: If
using the claimant’s chronological age will result in a favorable decision, an administrative law
judge (ALJ) will not use the higher age category solely because it will result in a more favorable
onset date, determination, or decision for the claimant.”). See also SSA Program Operations
(“IMPORTANT: If using the claimant’s chronological age would result in a partially or fully
favorable determination, only consider the claimant’s chronological age. This is not a borderline
In her reply brief, Plaintiff argues that “the error really lies in the ALJ merely looking at
Plaintiff’s exertional limitations (which is when the Grid is used), and not considering the nonexertional limitations as set out in the MSS completed by long time treating psychiatric
counselor, Betty Bockhorst.” Pl’s. Reply, Doc. 28, at p. 1. It is unclear how this argument relates
to any alleged error related to the Grids or Plaintiff’s age. The ALJ only relied on the Grids for
his finding that Plaintiff was disabled as of her 55th birthday; he did not rely on the Grids to find
Plaintiff was not disabled before then. On the contrary, the ALJ specifically noted that he could
not rely on the Grids to find Plaintiff not disabled, because Plaintiff had limitations (including
non-exertional limitations) that prevented her from performing a full range of light work. (Tr.
24). Thus, with respect to the period prior to Plaintiff’s 55th birthday, the ALJ relied on the
testimony of a vocational expert rather than on the Grids. (Tr. 24-25). The Court will consider
Plaintiff’s argument with regard to Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion in a separate section below.
C. The ALJ’s Consideration of the Opinion of Betty Bockhorst, M.A., L.P.C.
In her Reply brief, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by not giving adequate weight to
the opinion of Betty Bockhorst, M.A., L.P.C., Plaintiff’s counselor. Ms. Bockhorst opined that,
inter alia, Plaintiff had extreme limitations in the ability to understand and remember complex
instructions; had moderate limitations in the ability to understand and remember simple
instructions, make complex work-related decisions, respond appropriately to usual work
situations and changes in a routine work setting, and interact appropriately with the public; could
not remember suggestions unless they were written down; would be off task 25% of the time or
more; and would miss work frequently. (Tr. 108-10) The ALJ discussed this opinion and gave it
little weight. (Tr. 22).
As Plaintiff acknowledges, Ms. Bockhorst was not an “acceptable medical source,” but
rather was an “other” medical source. Thus, she was not a “treating source” under the regulations
who may offer a medical opinion that is entitled to controlling weight. See Tindell v. Barnhart,
444 F.3d 1002, 1005 (8th Cir. 2006); Social Security Ruling 06-03p (“SSR 06-03p”), 2006 WL
2329939, at *2 (Aug. 9, 2006) (noting that “only ‘acceptable medical sources’ can give [the
Commissioner] medical opinions” and that “only ‘acceptable medical sources’ can be considered
treating sources, as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1502 and 416.902, whose medical opinions may be
entitled to controlling weight”). The regulations “do not explicitly address how to consider
relevant opinions and other evidence from ‘other sources.’” SSR 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at
*3. However, the ALJ is required to consider such opinions, and the factors to be considered may
include the length and frequency of the relationship, how consistent the opinion is with other
evidence, the degree to which the source presents relevant evidence to support an opinion, how
well the source explains the opinion, whether the source has a specialty or area of expertise
related to the impairment(s), and other factors. Id. at *4-*5. The ALJ has more discretion when
evaluating an opinion from an “other” medical source than when evaluating an opinion from an
acceptable medical source. See Tindell, 444 F.3d at 1005 (citing Raney v. Barnhart, 396 F.3d
1007, 1009 (8th Cir. 2005)).
The ALJ’s assessment of Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion was consistent with the regulations
and was supported by substantial evidence. First, the ALJ correctly recognized that although Ms.
Bockhorst had seen Plaintiff on numerous occasions, she was not an “acceptable medical source”
under the relevant regulations who offered a medical opinion that might be entitled to controlling
weight. Second, the ALJ reasonably found that Ms. Bockhorst’s clinical findings did not fully
support the severity of the limitations in her opinion. (Tr. 22). As the Commissioner points out,
aside from some notations of a depressed affect and/or psychomotor retardation in late 2012 and
early 2013, and some later notations that she appeared anxious, the bulk of Ms. Bockhorst’s
notes contain no clinical findings, just narrative descriptions of Plaintiff’s reported issues with
her mental and physical health and her issues with family members. (Tr. 423-26, 471-91, 812-56,
1145-60, 1162-86, 1622-27). When Ms. Bockhorst did make mental status examination findings,
they were largely unremarkable. (Tr. 414-17). Plaintiff had an anxious mood, slow speech, and
tense motor activity, but her attitude was cooperative, her affect was appropriate, she was fully
oriented, her immediate and remote memory was intact, her general knowledge was accurate, her
judgment was only minimally impaired, her insight was intact, her intelligence was average, she
had logical and organized thought processes, and she had no delusions or hallucinations. (Tr.
414-15). The ALJ reasonably found that these clinical findings did not fully support the extreme
limitations in Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion. For example, Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion that Plaintiff had
moderate to extreme limitations in the ability to understand and remember instructions is not
supported by Ms. Bockhorst’s findings of intact recent and remote memory. (Tr. 462). It is also
inconsistent with notes from other treatment providers also indicating that Plaintiff’s recent and
remote memory were intact. (Tr. 511, 515, 698, 902, 910, 917, 925, 1271). Ms. Bockhorst’s
opinion was also inconsistent with the much more moderate limitations in the opinion of state
agency consulting psychologist Mark Altomari, Ph.D., which the ALJ gave “significant weight.”
(Tr. 22, 76-78).
Finally, the Court notes that the ALJ did not wholly disregard Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion of
Plaintiff’s mental impairments, and his RFC assessment reflects some of the limitations in Ms.
Bockhorst’s opinion. The ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff was limited to simple, routine tasks is
generally consistent with Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion that although Plaintiff would have significant
problems with regard to complex instructions and complex work-related decisions, she would
have no impairment in the ability to carry out simple instructions and only a mild impairment in
the ability to make judgments on simple work-related decisions. (Tr. 17, 22, 108). The ALJ also
accommodated Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion that Plaintiff would have moderate difficulties in
interacting appropriately with the public by limiting her to only occasional contact with the
public. (Tr. 17, 22, 109). He also accommodated Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion that Plaintiff would
have moderate difficulties in responding appropriately to changes in a routine work setting by
finding that Plaintiff could tolerate only occasional changes in a routine work setting. (Tr. 17, 22,
The ALJ expressly considered Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion and gave good reasons,
supported by the record, for discounting it. Although Plaintiff suggests that the ALJ should have
given the opinion more weight, it is the duty of the ALJ, not the reviewing court, to weigh the
opinion evidence in the record and to resolve any conflicts. See Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d
1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012) “[I]t is the ALJ’s function to resolve conflicts among the opinions of
various treating and examining physicians.”) (quoting Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211,
1219 (8th Cir. 2001)). The ALJ’s assessment of Ms. Bockhorst’s opinion was consistent with the
regulations and was supported by substantial evidence.
D. The ALJ’s Decision Is Supported by Substantial Evidence
In addition to the specific arguments presented above, Plaintiff also generally suggests
that the ALJ’s finding that she was capable of working between November 10, 2012 and April
19, 2014 is not supported by substantial evidence. In her brief, Plaintiff does not specifically
challenge any particular findings the ALJ made in the five-step disability evaluation process.
Instead, she provides a chronological summary of the medical evidence during the relevant time
period and asserts that it does not support the ALJ’s conclusion that there was work she could do
during that time period. In her reply brief, Plaintiff appears to focus on Plaintiff’s mental
impairments, stating, “[t]he anxiety and depression caused by Plaintiff’s stroke, which is
thoroughly documented in her records show that her inability to work did not arise on her 55th
birthday, but from the date of her stroke.” Reply, Doc. 28, at pp. 1-2. However, she still does not
challenge any specific findings and does not identify any limitations that should have been
included in the RFC.
After review of the ALJ’s decision and the record as a whole, the Court finds that
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision. Although Plaintiff argues that she “never
recovered” from her stroke in November 2012, the issue is not whether Plaintiff fully recovered,
but whether she had an RFC consistent with the ability to perform work. The record contains
substantial evidence that she did. As discussed above, although Plaintiff certainly suffered from
some anxiety and depression, the ALJ reasonably relied on treatment notes showing that
Plaintiff’s memory, attention, and concentration were intact and that she was cooperative with
her providers (Tr. 462, 511, 515, 698, 902, 910, 917, 925, 1271); evidence that she was able to
travel and visit with friends (474, 815-16, 1171, 1294); and medical opinion evidence from the
state agency consultant finding that Plaintiff has the ability to understand, remember, and carry
out simple instructions; can relate appropriately to coworkers and supervisors; can adapt to most
changes in a competitive work setting; and can make simple work-related decisions. (Tr. 78).
This evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that despite Plaintiff’s anxiety and depression,
Plaintiff was capable of performing simple, routine tasks; could have occasional contact with the
public; and could tolerate at most occasional changes in routine. (Tr. 18-22).
With regard to Plaintiff’s physical limitations, the ALJ reasonably considered notes
showing that shortly after Plaintiff’s stroke, her physician noted that she could not perform any
strenuous activity but could perform light activity as tolerated (Tr. 353-54); notes showing that
after physical therapy, Plaintiff was able to vacuum and ambulate up and down stairs (Tr. 444);
treatment notes showing that since early 2013, Plaintiff’s lower extremity strength and range of
motion has generally been normal (Tr. 444, 511, 515, 698-99, 902); treatment notes showing that
that Plaintiff’s upper extremity strength has generally been normal or nearly normal (Tr. 511,
515, 545, 562, 572, 698, 867, 902); treatment notes showing that Plaintiff had a normal gait or
only a minimal gait disturbance (Tr. 511, 515, 867, 902); testimony from Plaintiff that she was
able to lift the weight of a gallon of milk in each hand (Tr. 45); evidence showing that Plaintiff
was able to travel (815-16, 1171, 1294); and a function report showing that Plaintiff was able to
do chores such as cleaning, laundry, sweeping, and shopping (Tr. 248-49). This evidence
supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s physical impairments could be accommodated by a
limitation to light work, with the additional limitation that she could only occasionally work
overhead bilaterally due to a reduced range of motion in her shoulders. (Tr. 22).
In sum, the Court finds that the ALJ’s RFC assessment was supported by substantial
evidence. The Court further finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding at Step
Five that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that
Plaintiff could have performed. The ALJ described to the vocational expert a hypothetical
individual with all of the limitations in Plaintiff’s RFC and asked whether there were any jobs an
such an individual could do, and the vocational expert responded that such an individual would
be able to perform the jobs of folding machine operator (1,510 jobs in Missouri), garment sorter
(715 jobs in Missouri), and mail clerk (1,890 jobs in Missouri). (Tr. 58-59). Because the
hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert adequately captured the consequences of
Plaintiff's impairments that were supported by the record, the response to that hypothetical
question constitutes substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s finding at Step Five. See Robson v.
Astrue, 526 F.3d 389, 393 (8th Cir. 2008).
For all of the above reasons, the Court finds that the ALJ’s decision was supported by
substantial evidence in the record as a whole. The Court acknowledges that Plaintiff has several
severe mental and physical impairments and that the record contains conflicting evidence, some
of which tends to support Plaintiff’s claim. However, the ALJ’s decision makes clear that he
considered this evidence, and it is not the role of this Court to reweigh that evidence. The ALJ’s
decision that Plaintiff was capable of a limited range of light work fell within the “zone of
choice,” and the Court cannot disturb that decision merely because it might have reached a
different conclusion. See Buckner, 646 F.3d at 556.
For all of the foregoing reasons, the Court finds the ALJ’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Accordingly,
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that the decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security is AFFIRMED.
SHIRLEY PADMORE MENSAH
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Dated this 27th day of September, 2016.
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