Wiggins v. Colvin
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 and Order is entered this same date. Signed by District Judge Henry Edward Autrey on 1/25/16. (CLA)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
KUNTA K. WIGGINS,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of
Social Security Administration,
No. 4:14CV1909 HEA
OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff’s request for judicial review
under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant denying Plaintiff’s
application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income
(SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401434, 1381-1385 . For the reasons set forth below, the Court will affirm the
Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's applications.
Facts and Background
On August 14, 2013, Administrative Law Judge Bradley L. Davis conducted
a hearing at which Plaintiff testified by telephone.1 Plaintiff was born on July 4,
At the time of the hearing Plaintiff was unable to appear in person as he was incarcerated at a Missouri correctional
facility located in Bonne Terre, Missouri relative a parole violation.
1977. He was 36 years old at the time of the hearing. Plaintiff did complete high
school. Plaintiff had past work experience as a security guard for SSI Global. He
also worked as a driver delivering mail for the IRS.
Plaintiff testified that he has a hard time concentrating and can’t remember
things. He also testified that he has a bad temper and blacks out and doesn’t
remember what he does. He also gets blurry vision and real bad headaches.
Plaintiff also testified that he has received a head injury resulting from
falling off a porch while he was sleeping. He noted the physician told him he did
not sustain a concussion but it seems his ability to focus, concentrate and
remember got worse after the fall. There was also testimony that he reported
hearing voices about six months prior to the hearing on his claim. The voices tell
him not to take his medications. The psychiatrist at the correctional facility
prescribed some medication to help control/resolve those things.
Prior to his incarceration Plaintiff resided with his mother. He would do
chores such as cut the grass, clean up, wash dishes, take out the trash, and general
household cleaning. He testified that while living with his mother, he felt good on
most days but several times a week he would feel anxiety and paranoia.
The ALJ secured testimony of Barbara Meyers, a Vocational Expert. As a
result of her testimony based upon hypothetical the ALJ found Plaintiff had the
severe impairments of depressive disorder, personality disorder and a history of
substance. The ALJ also found 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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR
404.1520 (d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920 (d), 416.925 and 416.926.
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on September 11,
2014. The decision of the ALJ is now the final decision for review by this court.
Statement of Issues
The issues in a Social Security case are whether the final decision of the
Commissioner is consistent with the Social Security Act, regulations, and
applicable case law, and whether the findings of fact by the ALJ are supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Here the Plaintiff asserts the ALJ did
not properly consider the medical opinion evidence.
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 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 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).
A claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (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.
A claimant's subjective complaints may not be disregarded solely because
the objective medical evidence does not fully support them. The absence of
objective medical evidence is just one factor to be considered in evaluating the
claimant's credibility and complaints. The ALJ must fully consider all of the
evidence presented relating to subjective complaints, including the claimant's prior
work record, and observations by third parties and treating and examining
physicians relating to such matters as:
(1) The claimant's daily activities;
(2) The subjective evidence of the duration, frequency, and intensity of the
(3) Any precipitating or aggravating factors;
(4) The dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication; and
(5) The claimant's functional restrictions.
Although the ALJ bears the primary responsibility for assessing a claimant's
RFC based on all relevant evidence, a claimant's RFC is a medical question.
Hutsell v. Massanari, 259 F.3d 707, 711 (8th Cir.2001) (citing Lauer v. Apfel, 245
F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir.2001)). Therefore, an ALJ is required to consider at least
some supporting evidence from a medical professional. See Lauer, 245 F.3d at 704
(some medical evidence must support the determination of the claimant's RFC);
Casey v. Astrue, 503 F .3d 687, 697 (the RFC is ultimately a medical question that
must find at least some support in the medical evidence in the record). An RFC
determination made by an ALJ will be upheld if it is supported by substantial
evidence in the record. See Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir.2006).
The ALJ must make express credibility determinations and set forth the
inconsistencies in the record which cause him to reject the claimant's complaints.
Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 802 (8th Cir.2005). “It is not enough that the
record contains inconsistencies; the ALJ must specifically demonstrate that he
considered all of the evidence.” Id. The ALJ, however, “need not explicitly
discuss each Polaski factor.” Strongson v. Barnhart, 361 F.3d 1066, 1072 (8th
Cir.2004). The ALJ need only acknowledge and consider those factors. Id.
Although credibility determinations are primarily for the ALJ and not the court, the
ALJ's credibility assessment must be based on substantial evidence. Rautio v.
Bowen, 862 F.2d 176, 179 (8th Cir.1988). The burden of persuasion to prove
disability and demonstrate RFC remains on the claimant. See Steed v. Astrue, 524
F.3d 872, 876 (8th Cir. 2008).
The ALJ here utilized the five-step analysis as required in these cases. The
ALJ determined at Step One that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since November 1, 2008. The ALJ found at Step Two that Plaintiff had the
severe impairments of depressive disorder, personality disorder and a history of
At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not suffer from an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equal the
severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1 (404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
As required, prior to Step Four, the ALJ determined the Residual Functional
Capacity of Plaintiff to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with nonexertional limitations as follows: he is limited to performing simple,
routine, repetitive tasks requiring no more than superficial interaction with the
public or co-workers (deal with things rather than people) , and cannot deal with
more than more than occasional changes in routine work setting.
At Step Four it was the finding of the ALJ that Plaintiff was capable of
performing past relevant work as a janitor. The ALJ also found the work does not
require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant’s
residual functional capacity.
Step Five the ALJ concluded that considering the Plaintiff’s age, education,
work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are other jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff also can perform, such
as kitchen helper, hand packager, night cleaner, The ALJ, therefore, found
Plaintiff not disabled, and denied the benefits sought in the Application.
Judicial Review Standard
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 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
Courts 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). The Eighth
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Circuit has repeatedly held that a court should “defer heavily to the findings and
conclusions” of the Social Security Administration. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734,
738 (8th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001).
Plaintiff asserts the ALJ did not properly consider the medical opinion
evidence of Dr. Raza and therefore the residual functional capacity is not supported
by substantial evidence on the record. The essence of this position appears to be
that the ALJ provided insufficient reason for discounting or not giving great weight
to the opinion of Dr. Raza.
Review of the transcript, record evidence, and decision of the ALJ yields a
conclusion wholly contrary to Plaintiff’s position.
The ALJ articulated reasoning for including and excluding factors in her
decision. Although Plaintiff made certain claims, the entirety of the record did not
support Plaintiff’s claims. When Plaintiff first met Dr. Raza the record reflects that
Plaintiff made no complaint of depression or anxiety, but noted he had not taken
his medication for a couple of weeks and could not manage his anger. Dr. Raza
noted that Plaintiff was calm, had appropriate mood, fair concentration and
memory and limited judgment and insight, constricted affect, and appeared to hold
back on information.
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In July of 2013 Dr. Raza completed a Medical Source Statement - Mental
form wherein the doctor noted Plaintiff had moderate limitations in his ability to
understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; maintain attention and
concentration for extended periods; sustain an ordinary routine without special
supervision; make simple work related decisions; ask simple questions or request
assistance; maintain socially appropriate behavior and to adhere to basic standards
of neatness and cleanliness; respond appropriately to changes in the work setting;
and set realistic goals or make plans independently of others. Dr. Raza opined that
Plaintiff had marked limitations in his ability to perform activities with schedule,
maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances; work in
coordination with or proximity to others without being distracted by them;
complete a normal workday and workweek without interruption from
psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an
unreasonable number and length of rest periods; interact appropriately with the
general public; accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from
supervisors; and get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or
exhibiting behavioral extremes.
In August 2013 Dr. Raza noted that Plaintiff had no complaints and was
doing ok. Dr. Raza also observed that Plaintiff’s limitations were not caused by
or exacerbated by drug or alcohol use
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A treating physician’s opinion that is not well-supported or is inconsistent
with other substantial evidence is not entitled to controlling weight. See Travis
v. Astrue, 477 F.3d 1037, 1041 (8th Cir. 2007) (“If the doctor’s opinion is
inconsistent with or contrary to the medical evidence as a whole, the ALJ can
accord it less weight.”). In addition, the fact that a treating physician’s RFC
assessment is in checklist format may limit its evidentiary value. Holmstrom v.
Massanari, 270 F.3d 715, 721 (8th Cir. 2001).
Plaintiff’s treatment at Hopewell from 2009 through 2013 was plainly
noted, but the record did not demonstrate a marked degree of limitation. His
medication worked well at controlling his symptoms. As such, a claimant’s
impairment cannot be considered disabling if substantial evidence supports the
ALJ’s determination that the impairments can be controlled through treatment
or medication. Perkins v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 892, 901 (8th Cir. 2011) (citing
Brown v. Astrue, 611 F.3d 941, 955 (8th Cir. 2010)).
The record plainly reflects that while treating at Hopewell, Plaintiff was
noted as cooperative and calm, fair concentration, fair memory, appropriate
mood. He would appear anxious or depressed due to financial stressors or legal
issues. These types of stressors are situational and therefore, not disabling. See
Gates v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 1080, 1082 (8th Cir. 2010) (“The medical record
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supports the conclusion that any depression experienced by Gates was
situational in nature, related to marital issues, and improved with a regimen of
medication and counseling.”); Mitchell v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 843 (8th Cir.
Plaintiff’s mental status was not at the level of severity that prevented all
work activity. He continued to search for work during the time frame of the
purported disability and even acquired a forklift driving certificate as well as
pursuing a career in heating and cooling. See Lansford v. Barnhart, 76 F. App’x
109, 110 (8th Cir. 2003) (searching for other work and receiving unemployment
benefits is inconsistent with a claim of disability).
Dr. Raza’s assessment of marked mental limitations was inconsistent with
other evidence of record. In concluding same an ALJ may discount a medical
opinion that is inconsistent with other evidence. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785,
790–91 (8th Cir. 2005) (“[A]n appropriate finding of inconsistency with other
evidence alone is sufficient to discount the opinion.”). The ALJ noted that the
state agency psychological consultant, James W. Morgan, Ph.D., reviewed the
record in December 2010 and opined that Plaintiff had no more than moderate
mental limitations. Dr. Morgan noted that Plaintiff had a history of inpatient
psychiatric stays that related to substance abuse, but that Plaintiff did not require
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inpatient treatment when he maintained sobriety. Dr. Morgan opined that
Plaintiff would function better in a non-public work environment.
It is patently clear the ALJ considered the records from the Missouri
Department of Corrections from 2011. These records demonstrated that Plaintiff
symptoms of depression were much better with medication; his mental status
exam was within normal limits; he was without serious symptoms of depression,
psychosis, or mania; no impairment of insight or judgment’ no signs of
psychosis or mood disturbance. Upon being released in 2012, his status was
virtually the same as it was in 2011.
Records available and scrutinized by the ALJ revealed an evaluation by
Georgia Jones, M.D in April 2012 of no significant limitations. Plaintiff had
intact social functioning and good concentration and persistence throughout the
exam. Dr. Jones indicated that Plaintiff’s prognosis would improve with
sobriety. In addition a mental status exam while in the custody of the Missouri
Department of Corrections in 2013 established there were no overt signs of
severe mental illness. Dr. Raza’s conclusions were rankly inconsistent with the
other medical sources.
The ALJ considered all there was to consider, including Plaintiff’s
hospitalization and GAF scores. In March and April of 2007 He was assessed a
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GAF score of 60. In December of 2009 Plaintiff had a GAF score of 50. The
record discloses that these scores were related to his substance abuse and he was
better when not intoxicated or under the influence of narcotic substances. On
those occasions when Plaintiff was not abusing drugs or alcohol his GAF scores
were higher.2 This demonstrates the ALG finding was proper as it relates to Dr.
Raza and the substance abuse of Plaintiff.
After careful review, the Court finds the ALJ’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The decision will be affirmed.
Perkins v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 892, 900 (8th Cir.2011); Dunahoo v. Apfel, 241
F.3d 1033, 1038 (8th Cir. 2001).
The ALJ’s clear and specific opinion is supported by substantial evidence
in the record, and therefore must 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
In October of 2011 his GAF score was 60 while incarcerated and free from substance abuse. In April of 2012 his
GAF score was 70, with only mild symptoms.
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Order is entered this same date.
Dated this 25th day of January, 2016.
HENRY EDWARD AUTREY
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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