Rifenburg v. Colvin
ORDER - The Commissioner's decision is affirmed. Signed on 6/16/17 by Chief District Judge Greg Kays. (Strodtman, Tracy)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
SARAH F. RIFENBURG,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION
Plaintiff Sarah Rifenburg petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the
Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).
Plaintiff applied for disability
insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401–434.
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including
obesity, lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, lumbar spine peripheral neuropathy,
degenerative arthritis of the bilateral knees, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and thyroid
disease, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work
as a tourist information assistant.
As explained below, the Court finds the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial
evidence on the record as a whole. The Commissioner’s decision is therefore AFFIRMED.
Procedural and Factual Background
The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties’ briefs and are repeated
here only to the extent necessary.
Plaintiff filed the pending applications on July 8, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of
May 1, 2010. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff
appealed the denial to an ALJ. On October 16, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing and on March 2,
2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff’s request for review on March 22, 2016, leaving the ALJ’s decision as the
Commissioner’s final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial
review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
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. Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015).
Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind
would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner’s decision. Id. 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 must “defer heavily” to the Commissioner’s findings and
conclusions. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015). The court may reverse the
Commissioner’s decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice; a decision is not
outside this zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner v.
Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process1 to determine
whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by
“The five-step sequence involves determining whether (1) a claimant’s work activity, if any, amounts to substantial
gainful activity; (2) his impairments, alone or combined, are medically severe; (3) his severe impairments meet or
medically equal a listed impairment; (4) his residual functional capacity precludes his past relevant work; and (5) his
residual functional capacity permits an adjustment to any other work. The evaluation process ends if a
determination of disabled or not disabled can be made at any step.” Kemp ex rel. Kemp v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 630, 632
n.1 (8th Cir. 2014); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)–(g). 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
reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a
continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by discounting: (1) the opinion of a nurse practitioner; and
(2) Plaintiff’s credibility. Due to these alleged errors, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ’s RFC finding
was not supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ did not err in discounting the opinion of a nurse practitioner.
First, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in discounting the opinion of nurse practitioner
Stephanie Voorhis, NPC (“Ms. Voorhis”) and, as a result, the ALJ’s RFC findings were not
supported by substantial evidence.
“[T]o establish a disability or impairment, the Social Security Administration requires
‘evidence from acceptable medical sources.’” Crawford v. Colvin, 809 F.3d 404, 408 (8th Cir.
2015) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(a)). The list of acceptable medical sources includes licensed
physicians, psychologists, and optometrists.
20 C.F.R. § 416.913(a).
In addition to these
acceptable medical sources, an ALJ may consider evidence from other sources, including nurse
practitioners and social welfare agency personnel. Id. §§ 416.913(d)(1), (d)(3). An ALJ has
discretion to consider opinions from these other sources “so long as [they are] not wholly
inconsistent with other opinions.” Crawford, 809 F.3d at 408.
Here, the ALJ found Plaintiff was able to sit six hours per day, thirty minutes at a time,
and stand or walk for two hours a day, thirty minutes at a time. R. at 18. In making this finding,
the ALJ gave little weight to Ms. Voorhis’s report that Plaintiff was “only capable of sitting for
two hours in an eight hour day, and standing for two hours in an eight hour day.” R. at 17, 351.
The ALJ rejected this finding for two reasons. First, Ms. Voorhis’s report did “not account for
to show that there are other jobs in the economy that the claimant can perform. King v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 978, 979
n.2 (8th Cir. 2009).
what position the claimant would need to assume for the remaining four hours” and indicates
Plaintiff “would not need to elevate her legs, suggesting [Ms. Voorhis] does not think [Plaintiff]
would need to be supine during those four hours.” R. at 17, 351-52. Second, Ms. Voorhis’s
report was inconsistent with that of an acceptable medical source, Charles J. Ash, M.D. (“Dr.
Ash”). Dr. Ash opined Plaintiff was able to stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour
workday, one hour at a time, and sit for an entire eight-hour workday. R. at 381.
Because the ALJ relied on conflicting record evidence from an acceptable source in
formulating Plaintiff’s RFC—even finding Plaintiff was more limited than the assessment
provided by Dr. Ash—the Court finds the ALJ did not err in discounting Ms. Voorhis’s opinion.
See Lacroix v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 881, 887-88 (8th Cir. 2006) (upholding ALJ decision to give
nurse practitioner and therapist opinions less weight where those opinions were inherently
inconsistent and inconsistent with other evidence in the record).
The ALJ did not err in discounting Plaintiff’s testimony.
Next, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in discounting her subjective reports of pain.
In judging the credibility of a claimant’s subjective complaints of pain, an ALJ must
examine several factors: (1) the claimant’s daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and
intensity of the pain; (3) the dosage, effectiveness and side effects of medication; (4)
precipitating and aggravating factors; and (5) functional restrictions (the “Polaski factors”).
Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). Other relevant factors include the
claimant’s past relevant work history and the absence of objective medical evidence in support of
the complaints. Haggard v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 591, 594 (8th Cir. 1999). The ALJ need not
explicitly discuss each factor. Brown v. Chater, 87 F.3d 963, 966 (8th Cir. 1996).
In making his credibility finding and the ultimate RFC finding, the ALJ discussed:
inconsistencies between Plaintiff’s complaints, medical records, and Plaintiff’s daily activities,
see, e.g., R. at 17 (noting the “evidence shows that the claimant continued to work well after her
alleged onset date”), 147-51 (indicating Plaintiff cooks, cleans, takes care of pets, goes fishing,
and attends church), 303 (reporting Plaintiff “independently ambulated . . . with no assistive
device and demonstrated no significant gait deviations”); compare R. at 39 (testimony that her
medications have side effects) with R. at 350 (treatment notes indicating Plaintiff’s medications
do not have side effects); Plaintiff’s conservative treatment, see e.g., R. at 16-17 (noting
“claimant’s medical treatment has been sporadic and limited to conservative outpatient
medication management”); and reports of good results from Plaintiff’s treatment, R. at 17. Each
of these factors supports the ALJ’s decision to discount Plaintiff’s credibility and formulate an
RFC that was less limiting than Plaintiff’s allegations.
Because the ALJ’s credibility determination was supported by good reasons and record
evidence, the Court will defer to his evaluation of Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. See Turpin
v. Colvin, 750 F.3d 989, 993 (8th Cir. 2014) (“We defer to the ALJ’s evaluation of [a plaintiff’s]
credibility provided that this determination is supported by good reasons and substantial
evidence.”) (internal quotations omitted).
Because substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the ALJ’s opinion, the
Commissioner’s decision denying benefits is AFFIRMED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Date: June 16, 2017
/s/ Greg Kays
GREG KAYS, CHIEF 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?