United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division
June 19, 2014
CHAD ANGST, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ERIN L. SETSER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Chad Angst, 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 April 6, 2011, and July 18, 2011, respectively, alleging an inability to work since June 30, 2010, due to depression and arthritis. (Tr. 78, 89, 216). An administrative hearing was held on March 8, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 248-271).
By written decision dated May 4, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 12). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: a fracture of the left ankle status post ORIF, depression, and borderline intellectual functioning. 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. (Tr. 13). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except the claimant is limited to simple tasks and simple instructions, and the claimant can have only incidental contact with the general public.
(Tr. 15). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work as a hand packer, and a kitchen helper-dishwasher. (Tr. 21).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on February 13, 2013. (Tr. 3-6). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 7). Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 12, 13).
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 issue on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 12.05(c); 2) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff could perform other work at Step 5 of the Sequential Evaluation Process; 3) the ALJ erred in only giving partial weight to the opinion of Dr. Stephen P. Nichols when determining Plaintiff's RFC; and 4) the ALJ erred in not finding Plaintiff's schizoid personality disorder to be a severe impairment. The Court notes Plaintiff's arguments will be discussed out of sequence below.
A. Plaintiff's Impairments:
At Step Two of the sequential analysis, the ALJ is required to determine whether a claimant's impairments are severe. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). To be severe, an impairment only needs to have more than a minimal impact on a claimant's ability to perform work-related activities. See Social Security Ruling 96-3p. The Step Two requirement is only a threshold test so the claimant's burden is minimal and does not require a showing that the impairment is disabling in nature. See Brown v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987). The claimant, however, has the burden of proof of showing he suffers from a medically-severe impairment at Step Two. See Mittlestedt v. Apfel , 204 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir.2000).
The ALJ clearly considered all of Plaintiff's impairments, including the impairments that were found to be non-severe. See Swartz v. Barnhart , 188 F.App'x 361, 368 (6th Cir.2006) (where ALJ finds at least one "severe" impairment and proceeds to assess claimant's RFC based on all alleged impairments, any error in failing to identify particular impairment as "severe" at step two is harmless); Elmore v. Astrue , 2012 WL 1085487 *12 (E.D. Mo. March 5, 2012); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(2) (in assessing RFC, ALJ must consider "all of [a claimant's] medically determinable impairments..., including... impairments that are not severe'"); § 416.923 (ALJ must "consider the combined effect of all [the claimant's] impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient severity"). The Court finds the ALJ did not commit reversible error in setting forth Plaintiff's severe impairments.
B. Listing Impairment 12.05C:
Under Listing 12.05C, a claimant suffers from the required severity of mental retardation if he shows a valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70, with an onset prior to age 22, and a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant work-related limitation of function. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.05C; McNamara v. Astrue , 590 F.3d 607, 611 (8th Cir. 2010). When trying to establish that the Listing 12.05C requirements have been met, the claimant must also meet the requirements in the introductory paragraph of Listing 12.05. Maresh v. Barnhart , 438 F.3d 897, 899 (8th Cir. 2006). Those requirements clearly include demonstrating that the claimant suffered "deficits in adaptive functioning" and that those deficits "initially manifest during the developmental period [before age 22]." 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.05; Cheatum v. Astrue , 388 Fed.Appx. 574, 576 (8th Cir. 2010)(citations omitted).
The Court finds, based upon the well-stated reasons outlined in the Defendant's brief, that Plaintiff's argument is without merit, and that there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make an informed decision. Therefore, the Court finds there is substantial evidence of record to support the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 12.05C.
C. RFC Assessment:
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.
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 medium work with limitations. The Court notes that in determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ discussed the medical opinions of examining and non-examining medical professionals, including the opinions of Drs. John Gaston, Stephen P. Nichols, Tad Michael Morgan, Christal Janssen, Bill F. Payne, Sharon Keith, and Kay M. Gale, 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).
With regard to Dr. Nichols' opinion that Plaintiff had a schizoid personality disorder, the ALJ noted that he did not give this diagnosis weight as the record revealed Plaintiff was able to maintain outside employment for seventeen years, to meet and marry his wife, to assist in the daily care of his children, to shop, to go out alone, to attend medical appointments, and to go out to dinner occasionally with his family. This determination is further supported by the opinions of Drs. Janssen and Gale, both non-examining medical consultants, who after reviewing the evaluation of Dr. Nichols and the record, opined Plaintiff would be able to perform unskilled work. The ALJ also noted that Dr. Gaston indicated that Plaintiff and his wife reported some improvement with his anger with the use of medication. (Tr. 159).
As for Plaintiff's physical limitations, while the non-examining medical consultants opined Plaintiff could perform light work, the ALJ set forth his reasoning for not giving full weight to these opinions. The ALJ also specifically addressed the weight that was given to Dr. Morgan's assessment. In declining to give full weight to these medical opinions, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff testified that his ankle impairment did not keep him from working, rather he was unable to work due to his depression and inability to get along with others. (Tr. 257). The ALJ also pointed out that Plaintiff's ankle injury occurred in 2004, and that Plaintiff was able to maintain his employment which included frequently lifting up to twenty-five pounds and occasionally lifting one hundred pounds or more, until he had a disagreement with his father in June of 2010. (Tr. 105). The record revealed that in April of 2011, Plaintiff saw Dr. Gaston with complaints of depression and while he reported chronic ankle pain a physical examination was deferred. (Tr. 214). The record further revealed that Plaintiff took only over-the-counter medication for his alleged disabling ankle and left shoulder pain. (Tr. 258). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ's RFC determination for the relevant time period.
D. Subjective Complaints and Credibility Analysis:
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, and the Defendant's well-stated reasons set forth in her brief, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors. The Court notes that in a Function Report dated April 18, 2011, Plaintiff reported that he took his children to and from school; that he helped his disabled wife with whatever she needed; that he did laundry and sometimes mowed; that he could drive; that he could shop for groceries; and that he could attended medical appointments. (Tr. 94-101). Plaintiff's wife also completed a Function Report - Third Party on April 19, 2011, and indicated that Plaintiff prepared meals; took their children to and from school; took care of his personal needs, except for shaving; did some laundry; and mowed over a period of days. (Tr. 112-121).
The ALJ further noted that Plaintiff testified that he first received unemployment benefits in October of 2010, and drew unemployment for about one year. (Tr. 254-255). The Court notes "[a] claimant may admit an ability to work by applying for unemployment compensation benefits because such an applicant must hold himself out as available, willing and able to work." Jernigan v. Sullivan , 948 F.2d 1070, 1074 (8th Cir.1991).
The Court would also note that while Plaintiff indicated that he did not seek the recommended mental health 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). The record further revealed that Plaintiff was able to come up with the funds to support his smoking habit throughout the relevant time period.
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.
E. 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). 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 hand packer, and a kitchen helper-dishwasher. 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.