Masters v. Astrue
OPINION MEMORANDUM AND ORDER IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is affirmed.A separate judgment in accordance with this Opinion, Memorandum andOrder is entered this same date. Signed by District Judge Henry E. Autrey on 2/10/14. (CLA)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Case No. 4:12CV1070 HEA
OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff’s request for judicial review
under 28 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant denying Plaintiff’s
applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
under Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. §1381, et seq. For the reasons set forth below, the
Court affirms the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's applications.
Facts and Background
Plaintiff was 52 years old at the time of the hearing. She was 49 years old
as of the date of onset of February 10, 2009. She had training as an EMT, worked
Carolyn W. Colvin became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security on February 14, 2013.
Pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Carolyn W. Colvin should be substituted
for Michael J. Astrue as the Defendant in this suit. No further action needs to be taken to continue this
suit by reason of the last sentence of section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
as a home health aide, and studied for CNA but did not complete the course work.
She stopped working in February or March of 2009. The ALJ found Plaintiff had
the impairments of: joint disease, rheumatoid arthritis, status post hip replacement,
degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, synouitis of the left
ankle, retro-calcaneal bursitis of the right foot, plantar fasciitis, and achilles
bursitis and tendonitis.
At the September 15, 2011, hearing, Plaintiff testified that she is married
and lives with her husband. Plaintiff testified about having a GED and training as
an EMT. She has worked as a home health aide and has studied to be a CNA but
did not complete the course work. Plaintiff also had brief employment with a
nursing home. Plaintiff stopped working in February of 2009. She testified she
could no longer do heavy lifting, stooping, standing, or bending. This was
occasioned, according to Plaintiff, by the flare ups of swelling and stiffness in her
hands, wrists, and shoulders. Plaintiff also stated she has had a number of falls
due to her knees locking up. Her condition worsened in 2011, and as of June
2011, she was prescribed a power wheelchair.
A vocational expert also testified. The VE testified, in relation to an onset
date of June 1, 2011, that Plaintiff could perform work that is limited to sedentary
work but no work involving climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; may
occasionally knell, crouch, or crawl; may frequently push and pull; may
occasionally perform fine finger manipulation and frequently perform gross finger
manipulation; and avoid extremes in cold and wetness. The VE testified there are
no jobs in St. Louis that satisfy these requirements. For the period prior to June 1,
2011, the vocational expert testified there were jobs in the St. Louis area that
satisfied Plaintiff’s RFC status for the period February 10, 2009, to June 1, 2011.
In that regard the VE testified Plaintiff had the residual capacity to perform light
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 4165.967(b) except should avoid
climbing ropes, ladders, scaffolds; may occasionally kneel, crouch, or crawl; may
frequently push or pull with her arms; may occasionally perform fine finger
manipulation and frequently perform gross finger manipulation; and must avoid
extremes of cold and wetness. Plaintiff’s application for social security and
supplemental security income benefits under Titles II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq.,
and XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq., was denied on December 10, 2010.
On October 17, 2011, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision concluding
that plaintiff has been disabled beginning June 1, 2011. The Appeals Council
denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision. Thus, the decision of
the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.
Standard For Determining Disability
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. § 1382c(a)(3)(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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
A five-step regulatory framework is used to determine whether an
individual claimant qualifies for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a),
416.920(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir.2011)
(discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the ALJ 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), 416.920(a)(4)(I); McCoy, 648 F.3d at
611. At Step Two, the ALJ 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), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c);
McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the ALJ 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),
416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will
find the claimant disabled; if not, the ALJ proceeds with the rest of the five-step
process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.
Prior to Step Four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's “residual functional
capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his] 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), 416.920(e). At Step Four, the ALJ
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),
416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(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 ALJ 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), 416.920(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at
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 the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a
significant number of jobs within the national economy. Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674
F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir.2012).
Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ in this case determined
at Step One that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
February 10, 2009, the alleged onset date of disability. At Step Two, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint
disease; rheumatoid arthritis, status post hip replacement, degenerative disc
disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; synovitis of the left ankle; retro-calcaneal
bursitis of the right foot; plantar fasciitis; and achilles bursitis and tendonitis. At
Step Three, the ALJ found since the alleged onset date of February 10, 2009
Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
equaled in severity of any impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
Prior to Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff, prior to June 1, 2011, the
date Plaintiff became disabled, she had the residual functional capacity to perform
light work as defined 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and416.967(a) except avoiding
climbing ropes, ladders or scaffolds; may occasionally kneel, crouch, or crawl;
may frequently push and pull; may occasionally perform fine finger manipulation
and frequently perform gross finder manipulation; and avoid extremes of cold and
wetness. The ALJ also found that beginning June 1, 2011 the Plaintiff had the
residual capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a)
and416.967(a) except she should avoiding climbing ropes, ladders or scaffolds;
may occasionally kneel, crouch, or crawl; may frequently push and pull; may
occasionally perform fine finger manipulation and frequently perform gross finder
manipulation; and avoid extremes of cold and wetness.
At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any
past relevant work since February 10, 2009..
At Step Five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff’s RFC, age, education, and work
experience to determine that there are no jobs that exist in the national economy
that Plaintiff can perform and granted disability from the date of June 1, 2011. No
disability was found for the period preceding June 1, 2011.
Standard For Judicial Review
The Court’s role in reviewing the Commissioner’s decision is to determine
whether the decision “‘complies with the relevant legal requirements and is
supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.’” Pate–Fires v. Astrue,
564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir.2009) (quoting Ford v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 979, 981 (8th
Cir.2008)). “Substantial evidence is ‘less than preponderance, but enough that a
reasonable mind might accept it as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Renstrom
v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1063 (8th Cir.2012) (quoting Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d
520, 522 (8th Cir.2009)). 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.
(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 should disturb the administrative decision only if it falls
outside the available “zone of choice” of conclusions that a reasonable fact finder
could have reached. Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 936 (8th Cir.2006).
In her appeal of the Commissioner's decision, Plaintiff makes the following
arguments: (1) the ALJ’s finding for the period prior to June 1, 2011, was not
supported by substantial evidence, (2) The ALJ did not properly find that Plaintiff
could perform other work prior to June 1, 2011.
RFC and Medical Evidence
A claimant's RFC is the most an individual can do despite the combined
effects of all of his or her credible limitations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. An
ALJ's RFC finding is based on all of the record evidence, including the claimant's
testimony regarding symptoms and limitations, the claimant's medical treatment
records, and the medical opinion evidence. See Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959,
969 (8th Cir.2010); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545; Social Security Ruling (SSR)
96–8p. An ALJ may discredit a claimant's subjective allegations of disabling
symptoms to the extent they are inconsistent with the overall record as a whole,
including: the objective medical evidence and medical opinion evidence; the
claimant's daily activities; the duration, frequency, and intensity of pain; dosage,
effectiveness, and side effects of medications and medical treatment; and the
claimant's self-imposed restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322
(8th Cir.1984); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; SSR 96–7p.
The ALJ’s RFC Finding Prior to June 1, 2011, was not Supported by
It is the claimant’s burden to prove her RFC, and it is the ALJ’s
responsibility to determine the RFC based on all relevant evidence in the record.
See Harris v. Barnhart, 356 F.3d 926, 930 (8th Cir. 2004); McKinney v. Apfel, 228
F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000) (“The Commissioner must determine a claimant’s
RFC based on all of the relevant evidence, including the medical records,
observations of treating physicians and others, and an individual’s own description
of his limitations.”).
An RFC finding must be supported by some medical evidence. See Dykes v.
Apfel, 223 F.3d 865, 867 (8th Cir. 2000). However, it does not need to be based on
the opinion of any one particular physician. See Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909,
927 (8th Cir. 2011) (‘“[T]he ALJ [was] not required to rely entirely on a particular
physician’s opinion or choose between the opinions [of] any of the claimant’s
physicians.’” (quoting Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 845 (7th Cir. 2007))).
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While the ALJ considers the medical evidence from the claimant’s doctors,
the ALJ remains the ultimate arbiter of RFC. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2),
416.927(d)(2) (Commissioner uses medical sources to “provide evidence”
regarding several factors including residual functional capacity, but “final
responsibility for deciding these issues is reserved to the Commissioner”). In this
case, the ALJ based her RFC finding on the objective medical evidence in the
The ALJ found that prior to June 1, 2011, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform
light work with certain limitations (Tr. 54). Specifically, she noted that Plaintiff
should avoid climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds (Tr. 54). The ALJ concluded
that Plaintiff could occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, and perform fine finger
manipulation (Tr. 54). She found that Plaintiff could frequently perform gross
finger manipulation and push and pull with her arms (Tr. 54). The ALJ restricted
Plaintiff’s exposure to extreme cold and wetness (Tr. 54).
The medical evidence supported Plaintiff’s diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis
(Tr. 349). This impairment did not limit her to sedentary work prior to June 1,
2011. For instance, in March 2009, Plaintiff alleged she exacerbated her
rheumatoid arthritis, but also reported lifting furniture (Tr. 55, 312). Three months
later, Dr. Mannis observed that Plaintiff had a slow gait, but full range of motion
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in her elbows, hands, wrists, and knees (Tr. 462-63). X-Rays showed only
minimal to mild degenerative changes in Plaintiff’s hips, right shoulder, wrist, and
spine (Tr. 465-69). Hospital records from May 28, 2011, stated that her gait was
steady and she was ambulating without assistance (Tr. 509). Plaintiff’s primarycare physician, Dr. Caciolo, saw her numerous times for arthritis pain, but
suggested conservative treatment (Tr. 348-49). And Dr. Muckerman-McCall
opined that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work (Tr. 57). The ALJ gave
Dr. Muckerman-McCall’s assessment great weight because it was based on Dr.
Mannis’s examination, Plaintiff’s inconsistent use of a walker, and x-rays that
showed minor impairments (Tr. 473-74). The medical evidence demonstrated
supported the finding of the ALJ.
In June 2011, Plaintiff met with Dr. Coulson after she fell and exacerbated
her rheumatoid arthritis (Tr. 58, 504). Dr. Coulson prescribed medication and
ordered a power wheelchair for Plaintiff the next day (Tr. 58, 586). Plaintiff’s
condition continued to worsen, with Dr. Kennen restricting her activities and
requiring her to wear a fracture boot in July (Tr. 562). Finally, in September 2011,
Dr. Coulson submitted an extremely restrictive RFC (Tr. 595). Plaintiff also
testified that her symptoms had “gotten extremely worse” since June 2011 (Tr.
26). She claimed that since June she “had more flares and more instability of
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walking and being able to do things” (Tr. 26). The ALJ’s use of June 1, 2011, as
Plaintiff’s disabling date properly encompassed Plaintiff’s loss of mobility and
deterioration in health at that time.
As observed by the ALJ, the limitations by Dr. Coulson are not relevant or
germaine to the period prior to June 1, 2011. However, Dr. Coulson completed an
arthritis RFC questionnaire on September 19, 2011, and the assessment did not
purport to describe Plaintiff’s limitations for the entire period, i.e., from February
20, 2009, onward (Tr. 589). In the questionnaire, Dr. Coulson opined that Plaintiff
could rarely twist, stoop, crouch, or crawl (Tr. 590). She found that Plaintiff had
significant limitations reaching, handling, and fingering (Tr. 590). Dr. Coulson
also instructed Plaintiff to use a power wheelchair (Tr. 586).
Prior to June 2011, Plaintiff met with Dr. Coulson three times for treatment
(Tr. 523, 544, 552). Dr. Coulson never recommended Plaintiff restrict her
movement, and often suggested conservative treatment options like exercise,
stretching, and massage (Tr. 544, 523). The opinion of the ALJ was based upon
the substantial evidence of the record.
Although the opinion of the ALJ could arguably be tidier on the finding
Plaintiff could perform light work, (“[a]n arguable deficiency in opinion-writing
technique is not a sufficient reason for setting aside an administrative finding
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where the deficiency probably had no practical effect on the outcome of the
case.”) Forte v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 892, 896 (8th Cir. 2004). “Light work” is a
term of art with a specific and well-known meaning. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1567(b), 416.967(b) (discussing the demands of light work). The ALJ’s
finding that Plaintiff could perform light work was equivalent to a finding that she
was restricted in the areas of sitting, standing, walking, carrying, and lifting. The
Eighth Circuit has noted that the regulations define light work as including “(1)
lifting or carrying ten pounds frequently; (2) lifting twenty pounds occasionally;
(3) standing or walking, off and on, for six hours during an eight-hour workday;
(4) intermittent sitting; and (5) using hands and arms for grasping, holding, and
turning objects.” Holley v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1088, 1091 (8th Cir. 2001); see
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b); 416.967(b). To more fully encompass Plaintiff’s
impairments, the ALJ made the additional finding that Plaintiff could frequently
push and pull with her arms (Tr. 52). There is no uncertainty about the findings of
The relevant medical evidence supported the ALJ’s determination that
Plaintiff was able to perform light work with certain limitations prior to June 1,
2011. Because the evidence clearly showed that Plaintiff’s condition deteriorated
in June, the ALJ’s RFC finding should be upheld.
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The ALJ Did Not Properly Find that Plaintiff Could Perform Other Work
Prior to June 1, 2011
A vocational expert testified at the hearing in response to a proper
hypothetical of a claimant with the RFC of Plaintiff. The vocational expert
testified that a hypothetical claimant with Plaintiff’s education, work experience,
and limitations prior to June 1, 2011, could perform work as a cleaner, call-out
operator, and investigator (Tr. 31-32). Based on the vocational expert’s testimony,
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform other work that existed in
significant numbers in the national economy (Tr. 59). See Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d
614, 620 (8th Cir. 2007) (a vocational expert’s response to a complete and
correctly-phrased hypothetical provides substantial evidence for the ALJ’s step
five conclusion). The ALJ properly found that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to
June 1, 2011 (Tr. 60).
The ALJ’s RFC finding is clearly based upon the record as a whole. The
ALJ summarized Plaintiff’s testimony regarding her limitations, the treatment
notes regarding her impairments, the medical opinions in the record, Plaintiff’s
representations, and the ALJ’s credibility findings. The ALJ applied the proper
standard to the facts before her and her determination of Plaintiff’s RFC is
supported by the record as a whole.
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After careful examination of the record, the Court finds the Commissioner's
determination is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and
therefore, the decision will be affirmed.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security is affirmed.
A separate judgment in accordance with this Opinion, Memorandum and
Order is entered this same date.
Dated this 9th day of February, 2014.
HENRY EDWARD AUTREY
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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