Hohman v. Astrue
ORDER affirming Commissioner's Decision. Signed on 3/5/13 by District Judge Greg Kays. (Francis, Alexandra)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
ROBERT E. HOHMAN,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of Social Security,
ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER’S DECISION
Plaintiff Robert Hohman seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s
denial of his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act
(“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et. seq. Plaintiff has exhausted all of his administrative remedies
and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Hohman contends he is disabled because of osteoarthritis in his left acromioclavicular
joint1 and other problems with his left shoulder following surgery to repair his left rotator cuff
and superior labrum. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Plaintiff’s application,
finding that while Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments, he retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to work as a call-out operator, information clerk, and counter clerk. After
carefully reviewing the administrative record, the Court finds the ALJ’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
Factual and Procedural Background
A summary of the medical record is presented in the parties’ briefs and is repeated only
to the extent necessary.
The acromioclavicular joint is a joint at the top of the shoulder. See PDR Medical Dictionary 19 (1st ed. 1995).
Plaintiff filed his application for disability insurance benefits on May 8, 2008 alleging an
onset date of February 12, 2007. Following a hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff’s application on
June 21, 2010. Plaintiff appealed, and on July 12, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s
request for review, leaving the ALJ’s decision as the Commissioner’s final decision.
Standard of Review
A federal court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision to deny disability benefits is
limited to determining whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial
evidence on the record as a whole. McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000).
Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind
would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner’s conclusion.
In making this
assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner’s decision, as well
as evidence that supports it. Id. The court may not reverse the Commissioner’s decision as long
as substantial evidence in the records supports this decision, even if substantial evidence in the
record also supports a different result, or if the court might have decided the case differently
were it the initial finder of fact. Id.
Generally, a federal court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision to deny an application
for benefits is restricted to determining whether the Commissioner’s decision is consistent with
the Act, the regulations, and applicable case law, and whether the findings of fact are supported
by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. In determining whether a claimant is disabled,
the Commissioner follows a five-step evaluation process.2
The five-step process is as follows: First, the Commissioner determines if the applicant is currently engaged in
substantial gainful activity. If so, he is not disabled; if not, the inquiry continues. At step two the Commissioner
determines if the applicant has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment” or a combination
Hohman contends the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to consider the combined effects of his
impairments; (2) failing to give appropriate weight to his subjective complaints; (3) failing to
give great weight to the reports of his treating physicians; (4) failing to consider his nonexertional impairments; and (5) finding that he could work as a call-out operator, information
clerk, or counter clerk. These arguments are without merit.
The ALJ properly considered Plaintiff’s combination of impairments.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in not considering the combined effects of his impairments,
specifically, not discussing the degree of severity of his midline focal disc protrusion. As a threshold
matter, the ALJ need only briefly discuss a claimant’s impairments in combination. See Martise v.
Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 924 (8th Cir. 2011).
There is no error where, as here, the ALJ fully
summarized the medical records, discussed each of the claimant’s alleged impairments, and found
that the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled any
of the listed impairments. Id.; see also Raney v. Barnhart, 396 F.3d 1007, 1011 (8th Cir. 2005).
In the present case, the ALJ noted that the Plaintiff had a small midline focal disc protrusion
at T7-T8 but discounted its severity because Plaintiff had not sought treatment for it since the alleged
onset date. R. at 51. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments listed in, or medically equivalent to, one listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Appendix 1,
of impairments. If so, and they meet the durational requirement of having lasted or being expected to last for a
continuous 12-month period, the inquiry continues; if not, the applicant is considered not disabled. At step three the
Commissioner considers whether the impairment is one of specific listing of impairments in Appendix 1 of 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520. If so, the applicant is considered disabled; if not, the inquiry continues. At step four the
Commissioner considers if the applicant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) allows the applicant to perform past
relevant work. If so, the applicant is not disabled; if not, the inquiry continues. At step five the Commissioner
considers whether, in light of the applicant’s age, education and work experience, the applicant can perform any
other kind of work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v) (2009); King v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 978, 979 n.2 (8th Cir. 2009).
Through step four of the analysis the claimant bears the burden of showing that he is disabled. After the analysis
reaches step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are other jobs in the economy that the
claimant can perform. King, 564 F.3d at 979 n.2.
R. at 49.
Consequently, the Court holds the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff’s
impairments in combination.
The ALJ’s credibility analysis is supported by substantial evidence on the record.
Plaintiff also claims the ALJ erred by not giving greater weight to his subjective
complaints because the record does not contradict them.
As a threshold matter, credibility questions concerning a plaintiff’s subjective testimony
are “primarily for the ALJ to decide, not the courts.” Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 558
(8th Cir. 2003). In analyzing a claimant’s subjective complaints of pain, the ALJ considers the
entire record, including medical records; statements from the plaintiff and third parties; the
claimant’s daily activities; the duration, frequency and intensity of pain; the dosage,
effectiveness, and side effects of medication; precipitating and aggravating factors; and
functional restrictions. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir.
1984). When the ALJ articulates the inconsistencies that undermine the claimant’s subjective
complaints and those inconsistencies are supported by the record, the ALJ’s credibility
determination should be affirmed. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590 (8th Cir. 2004).
The ALJ found Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not credible to the extent they were
inconsistent with the ALJ’s RFC determination, R. at 50-52, and so the question here is whether
the pain prevents him from performing substantial gainful activity, not whether he experiences
back and shoulder pain. Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 961 (8th Cir. 2001). The ALJ considered
the entire record in making this determination and specifically discussed Plaintiff’s activities of
daily living, lack of medical treatment for his back, and the medical opinion evidence. R. at 5052. While Plaintiff’s activities of daily living are not dispositive, “they are a factor to consider.”
Wilson v. Chater, 76 F.3d 238, 241 (8th Cir 1996). Inconsistencies in the record, including a
claimant’s activities, reflect negatively on a claimant’s credibility. Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d
1145, 1148 (8th Cir. 2001). Plaintiff’s daily activities are not what one would expect of a
Plaintiff reported he shops independently, carries groceries, uses the
computer, reads, prepares simple meals, goes to church social events, and drives. R. at 22, 50,
163, 165-67. He also works 8-10 hours a week as a minister for his local church. R. at 26, 2829, 49. Such activities are inconsistent with complaints of disabling pain. See Dunahoo v. Apfel,
241 F.3d 1033, 1038-39 (8th Cir. 2001).
Additionally, as noted above, the ALJ also observed that although Plaintiff claimed he
was disabled by his back condition, he had not sought treatment for this problem. An ALJ may
discount a claimant’s subjective complaints of pain if the claimant has failed to pursue regular
medical treatment for it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 967 (8th Cir. 2003).
Finally, the ALJ noted that the medical opinion evidence did not support Plaintiff’s
complaints. R. at 51-52. Plaintiff contends he must rest after 15-20 minutes of walking and can
only concentrate for 45 minutes due to his pain, R. at 168, but his doctors did not find him so
limited. R. at 51, 205, 263, 386, 456. An ALJ may question allegations of disabling pain when
the medical evidence does not support the allegations. Riggins v. Apfel, 177 F.3d 689, 692-93
(8th Cir. 1999).
Because the ALJ articulated the inconsistencies and these inconsistencies are supported
by the record, his credibility determination is affirmed. Eichelberger, 390 F.3d at 590.
The ALJ did not err in weighing the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physicians.
Plaintiff also contends the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to give great weight
to the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physicians Dr. David Rogers, M.D., Dr. Richard Johnson,
M.D., and Dr. James P. Emanual, M.D.
With respect to Dr. Rodgers3 and Dr. Johnson, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred by
failing to state what weight he gave their opinions. Dr. Rodgers found that Plaintiff could not
use his left arm but could still perform light work; the ALJ agreed with his conclusion that
Plaintiff should be restricted to light work.
R. at 49-50.
The ALJ also agreed with Dr.
Johnston’s opinion that the Plaintiff could not return to his past relevant work. R. at 52. The
ALJ’s findings do not conflict with the substance of either doctor’s opinion. Thus, while the
ALJ did fail to explicitly state the weight he gave their opinions, this is a deficiency in opinionwriting which had no bearing on the outcome, so the decision need not be remanded or set aside.
Hepp v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 798, 806 (8th Cir. 2008).
Finally, with respect to Dr. Emmanuel’s opinion, the Court notes the ALJ adopted his
February 2009 restrictions for Plaintiff in his RFC finding, so the ALJ did, in fact, give great
weight to his opinion. R. at 49-50, 263. In May and October of 2009, Dr. Emmanuel changed
Plaintiff’s work restrictions to no lifting of greater than 5 pounds from waist to shoulder and no
overhead lifting. Plaintiff complains the ALJ did not state how much weight he gave to these
However, this is not the case.
The ALJ noted Dr. Emmanuel’s
assessments from May and October of 2009 but ruled they were not supported by evidence
showing any deterioration in Plaintiff’s physical condition. R. at 52. An ALJ may discredit a
treating physician’s opinion that is not supported by his own findings and diagnostic data and
medical evidence on the record as a whole. Haggard v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 591, 595 (8th Cir. 1999).
Consequently, there is no error here.
Plaintiff’s argument with respect to Dr. Rodgers is unclear. Although his name is mentioned in the first sentence
of this portion of Plaintiff’s brief, Plaintiff makes no further mention of him. The Court discusses his opinion here
to address all of Plaintiff’s concerns.
The ALJ did not err in considering Plaintiff’s non-exertional impairments.
Plaintiff also contends the ALJ erred in failing to consider the effects of his non-
exertional impairments of pain in his upper extremities and back on his ability to perform the full
range of light work. Plaintiff contends that even if this pain was a non-severe impairment, his
RFC should have included a limitation on his ability to stand or sit for long periods of time,
which in turn would have eroded his ability to perform light or sedentary work.
There is no merit to this argument. The ALJ did not find, nor does the medical evidence
support a finding, that Plaintiff is incapable of performing the sitting and standing requirements
of light work. R. at 49-53. As discussed above, the ALJ properly discounted Plaintiff’s claim
that his back pain was disabling to the degree it exceeded his RFC.
The ALJ’s finding
concerning Plaintiff’s non-exertional impairments is also supported by Dr. Rodgers and Dr.
Emmanuel’s opinions that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work. R. at 263, 386.
The ALJ did not err in finding Plaintiff could perform other work.
Finally, Plaintiff argues the Commissioner did not carry his burden of showing at step
five of the process that there are other jobs in the economy that he can perform. The VE testified
that an individual with Plaintiff’s limitations could perform the jobs of information clerk, call-out
operator, and counter clerk, and that these jobs existed in significant numbers in the national
economy. R. at 38. Plaintiff contends that while it might be conceivable that he could perform
these jobs, it is not reasonably probable, therefore the ALJ committed reversible error. Plaintiff
suggests that all three jobs require the use of both upper extremities for steadiness, fast, simple,
repeated movements of fingers, hands and wrist, and the ability to bend, stretch, twist or reach
out with the body, arms, and/or legs, and that he cannot do these things. Pl.’s Br. at 28-29.
The record supports the ALJ’s finding that of these abilities are within Plaintiff’s abilities as
described by his RFC. R. at 49-53. The Revised Dictionary of Occupational Titles indicates that the
jobs of counter clerk and call-out operator require these abilities only occasionally, and that the job of
appointment clerk requires reaching and handling frequently.
The Selected Characteristics of
Occupations Defined in the Revised Dictionary of Occupational Titles 333, 336, 341 (Department of
Labor 1993). Even if Plaintiff could not work as an appointment clerk, he could still work as a
counter clerk or call-out operator, and the ALJ’s finding is sufficient so long as the Plaintiff could
perform one job identified by the vocational expert (“VE”). Weiler v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1107, 1110-11
(8th Cir. 1999). Since the ALJ’s hypothetical question is supported by the evidence, the VE’s answer
about what jobs Plaintiff could perform constitutes substantial evidence supporting the denial of
benefits. Roberts v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 466, 471 (8th Cir. 2000).
For the reasons discussed above, the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Date: March 5, 2013
/s/ Greg Kays
GREG KAYS, JUDGE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?