United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division
BRENDA K. DOWNS-WILSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.
JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI, Chief Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Brenda Downs-Wilson, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (hereinafter "the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). 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 filed for DIB and SSI on June 13 and June 14, 2011,  respectively, due to depression, back problems, eye problems, diabetes, and chronic leg pain. Tr. 161-171, 201, 215-216, 227, 234. Her claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 65, 68, 75, 77, 79, 82. An administrative hearing was held on April 24, 2012. Tr. 29-46. Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel. She was 41 years old and possessed the equivalent of a high school education. Tr. 40, 202, 225. Plaintiff had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a health aide and retail cashier. Tr. 34-35, 202, 207-214.
On August 22, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff's degenerative disk disease of the lumbosacral spine, osteoarthritis of the knees, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and depression were severe, but concluded they did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. Tr. 13-15. After partially discrediting Plaintiff's subjective complaints, the ALJ determined that she could perform sedentary work involving occasional climbing of ramps, but could never climb ropes, scaffolds or ladders. Further, he found she could
balance with the use of a handheld assistive device, stoop, kneel, and crawl occasionally. She can never crouch. She is limited to performing jobs that can be done while using a handheld assistive device for prolonged ambulation. The claimant can do work involving simple, repetitive and routine tasks. She can perform work where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed; complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote, [with] few variables, and little judgment; supervision required is simple, direct and concrete.
Tr. 15. With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform work as an assembler, machine tenderer, and inspector. Tr. 23.
Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on September 9, 2013. Tr. 1-6. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. ECF No. 1. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. ECF Nos. 13, 16.
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 her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and that prevents her 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 or her disability, not simply their impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner's regulations require him 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 or her 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 or her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)-(f)(2003). Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his or her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
Of particular concern to the undersigned is the ALJ's RFC determination. The United States Court of Appeal 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). Adequate medical evidence must therefore exist that addresses the claimant's ability to function in the workplace. See Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003). The Court has held, however, that the ALJ is not at liberty to make medical judgments regarding the ability or disability of a ...