CIVIL NO. 16-3069
Plaintiff, Larry L. Norman, Jr., brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying his claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). In this judicial review, the Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I. Procedural Background:
Plaintiff protectively filed his current applications for DIB and SSI on December 14, 2012, alleging an inability to work since January 1, 2008, due to bipolar disorder, paranoia, depression and extreme anxiety. (Doc. 9, pp. 79, 317, 319). An administrative hearing was held on August 12, 2014, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Doc. 9, pp. 42-76).
By written decision dated March 6, 2015, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Doc. 9, p. 22). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: a right rotator cuff tear, an affective disorder, a generalized anxiety disorder and obesity. However, after reviewing all of the evidence presented, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Doc. 9, p. 23). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: The claimant is limited to work where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed; supervision is simple, direct, and concrete; and work does not require complicated written communications. He is unable to reach overhead with his right upper extremity, and can only reach in all other directions occasionally on the right.
(Doc. 9, p. 24). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work as a machine tender. (Doc. 9, p. 33).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which after reviewing additional evidence submitted by Plaintiff, denied that request on April 18, 2016. (Doc. 9, p. 6). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 5). Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 10, 11).
The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs, and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.
II. Applicable Law:
This Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). As long as there is substantial evidence in the record that supports the Commissioner's decision, the Court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because the Court would have decided the case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In other words, if after reviewing the record it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the findings of the ALJ, the decision of the ALJ must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000).
It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of proving his disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir.2001); see also 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c (a)(3)(A). The Act defines "physical or mental impairment" as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382(3)(C). A Plaintiff must show that his disability, not simply his impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner's regulations require her to apply a five-step sequential evaluation process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since filing his claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work; and, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy given his age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ's RFC determination is unsupported by substantial evidence; 2) the ALJ erred in failing to find that Plaintiff met Listing 12.04; and 3) the ALJ erred in failing to make a proper credibility finding.
A. Listing of Impairments:
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to determine that Plaintiff's impairments met Listing 12.04 of the Listing of Impairments pursuant to 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
The burden of proof is on the Plaintiff to establish that his impairments meet or equal a listing. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-31, 110 S.Ct. 885, 107 L.Ed.2d 967 (1990). To meet a listing, an impairment must meet all of the listing's specified criteria. Id. at 530, 110 S.Ct. 885 ("An impairment that manifests only some of these criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify."); Johnson v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 1067, 1070 (8th Cir. 2004). "Medical equivalence must be based on medical findings." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(b) (2003); Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 531 ("a claimant ... must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment"). In this case, the ALJ explicitly found there were no medical listings that precisely met or were medically equal to the criteria described in any of the impairments contained in the Listing of Impairments.
After reviewing the entire evidence of record, the Court finds there is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's impairments did not medically equal a Listing.
B. Subjective Complaints and Symptom Evaluation:
We now address the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints. The ALJ was required to consider all the evidence relating to Plaintiff's subjective complaints including evidence presented by third parties that relates to: (1) Plaintiff's daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of his pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of his medication; and (5) functional restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). While an ALJ may not discount a claimant's subjective complaints solely because the medical evidence fails to support them, an ALJ may discount those complaints where inconsistencies appear in the record as a whole. Id. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit observed, "Our touchstone is that [a claimant's] credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide." Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003).
After reviewing the administrative record, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors. A review of the record reveals that in September of 2012, Plaintiff indicated that he was able to take care of his personal needs, prepare simple meals, do laundry, walk, use public transportation, and watch television. (Doc. 9, pp. 441-448). While Plaintiff indicated that he did not have much of a social life, medical evidence revealed that Plaintiff reported he was not able to be out due to the rules of the shelter or the time he spent on public transportation, and not because he did not want or was unable to be around others. (Doc. 9, pp. 672, 701).
With respect to Plaintiff's alleged mental impairments, the record revealed that Plaintiff responded well to medication, and while he had some setbacks, he reported on more than one occasion that he was doing well. (Doc. 9, pp. 762, 843, 880, 887, 912). A review of the record revealed that Plaintiff was noted to have a normal attention span and concentration, as well as a normal memory, on numerous occasions during the time period in question. (Doc. 9, pp. 512, 516, 522, 543, 679, 681, 878, 885, 965). With respect to the side effects caused by medication, the record revealed that in March of 2014, Plaintiff denied experiencing any side effects. (Doc. 9, p. 912). In an August of 2014 Medical Source Statement, Ms. Judy Sweet, LCSW, also reported that Plaintiff did not report experiencing side effects caused by his medications. (Doc. 9, p. 975).
With respect to Plaintiff's alleged shoulder impairment, the record revealed that Plaintiff underwent an unsuccessful rotator cuff repair in June of 2014. (Doc. 9, p. 971). During a follow-up appointment on July 15, 2014, Plaintiff indicated that he did not want to undergo an additional surgery and reported that he had less pain and was functioning reasonably well. (Doc. 9, p. 973). The ALJ addressed Plaintiff's right shoulder impairment and included limitations when determining Plaintiff's RFC.
The Court would note that while Plaintiff alleged an inability to seek treatment due to a lack of finances, the record is void of any indication that Plaintiff had been denied treatment due to the lack of funds. Murphy v. Sullivan, 953 F.3d 383, 386-87 (8th Cir. 1992) (holding that lack of evidence that plaintiff sought low-cost medical treatment from her doctor, clinics, or hospitals does not support plaintiff's contention of financial hardship). It is noteworthy, that Plaintiff was able to come up with the funds to purchase cigarettes throughout the relevant time periods.
With regard to the testimony of Plaintiff's sister, the ALJ properly considered this evidence but found it unpersuasive. This determination was within the ALJ's province. See Siemers v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 299, 302 (8th Cir. 1995); Ownbey v. Shalala, 5 F.3d 342, 345 (8th Cir. 1993).
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of limitation, he has not established that he is unable to engage in any gainful activity. Accordingly, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff's subjective complaints were not totally credible.
C. ALJ's RFC Determination and Medical Opinions:
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person's limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). It is assessed using all relevant evidence in the record. Id. This includes medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant's own descriptions of his limitations. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005); Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). Limitations resulting from symptoms such as pain are also factored into the assessment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that a "claimant's residual functional capacity is a medical question." Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001). Therefore, an ALJ's determination concerning a claimant's RFC must be supported by medical evidence that addresses the claimant's ability to function in the workplace. Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003). "[T]he ALJ is [also] required to set forth specifically a claimant's limitations and to determine how those limitations affect his RFC." Id.
"The [social security] regulations provide that a treating physician's opinion ... will be granted 'controlling weight,' provided the opinion is 'well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record.'" Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012-13 (8th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). An ALJ may discount such an opinion if other medical assessments are supported by superior medical evidence, or if the treating physician has offered inconsistent opinions. Id. at 1013. Whether the weight accorded the treating physician's opinion by the ALJ is great or small, the ALJ must give good reasons for that weighting. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)).
In the present case, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of examining and non-examining agency medical consultants, Plaintiff's subjective complaints, and his medical records when he determined Plaintiff could perform a full range of exertional work with some limitations. The Court notes that in determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ discussed the medical opinions of examining and non-examining medical professionals, as well as "other source" medical opinions, and set forth the reasons for the weight given to the opinions. Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012) ("It is the ALJ's function to resolve conflicts among the opinions of various treating and examining physicians")(citations omitted); Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010 at 1012 (the ALJ may reject the conclusions of any medical expert, whether hired by the claimant or the government, if they are inconsistent with the record as a whole).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly discounted Ms. Sweet's, August 26, 2014, Mental Medical Assessment Questionnaire, opining that Plaintiff was unable to meet the competitive standards or had no useful ability to function in numerous areas of functioning. After review, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in discounting the opinion of Ms. Sweet. The ALJ declined to give controlling weight to Ms. Sweet's opinion for good and well-supported reasons. See 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 treating physician's] opinion."). A review further reveals substantial evidence supports the weight that the ALJ gave to the opinions of Drs. Sharon Steingard and Frank Rosekrans.
While Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in the analysis of Plaintiff's GAF scores, a GAF score is not essential to the RFC's accuracy. Howard v. Commissioner of Social Security, 276 F.3d 235, 241 (6th Cir. 2002). "[A]n ALJ may afford greater weight to medical evidence and testimony than to GAF scores when the evidence requires it." Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 974 (8th Cir. 2010). The ALJ also took Plaintiff's obesity into account when determining Plaintiff's RFC. Heino v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 873, 881-882 (8th Cir. 2009) (when an ALJ references the claimant's obesity during the claim evaluation process, such review may be sufficient to avoid reversal). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ's RFC determination.
D. Hypothetical Question to the Vocational Expert:
After thoroughly reviewing the hearing transcript along with the entire evidence of record, the Court finds that the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the vocational expert fully set forth the impairments which the ALJ accepted as true and which were supported by the record as a whole. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 794 (8th Cir. 2005). The Court notes that the vocational expert decreased the number of jobs available to the hypothetical individual due to the limitations on reaching with the non-dominant hand. Accordingly, the Court finds that the vocational expert's opinion constitutes substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff's impairments did not preclude him from performing work as a machine tender. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996) (testimony from vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question constitutes substantial evidence).
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff's Complaint should be dismissed with prejudice.
DATED this 9th day of August 2017.
HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE