United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division
ERIN L. SETSER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Rebecca Wilson, 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 her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the provisions of Title II 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 her application for DIB on April 13, 2012, alleging an inability to work since October 3, 2011, due to depression, diabetes, neuropathy in her feet, and back and leg pain. (Tr. 20, 134-42, 178). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured status through December 31, 2016. (Tr. 22). Her claim was initially denied on June 19, 2012, and denied upon reconsideration on October 2, 2012. (Tr. 80-82, 85-86). An administrative hearing was held on January 30, 2013, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 35-75). By a written decision dated April 19, 2013, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: hypertension, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, spondylosis of the lumbar spine, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine at the L5-S1 level, obesity, and depression. (Tr. 22, 187). 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 in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Tr. 22). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work, except that "she could perform work limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks involving only simple, work-related decisions with few, if any, workplace changes; and no more than incidental contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public." (Tr. 24). With the help of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work ("PRW"), but that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as fishing reel assembler, inspector checker weigher, and label cutting machine operator. (Tr. 27-28). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined by the Act during the relevant time period. (Tr. 29).
Plaintiff next requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on July 26, 2012. (Tr. 1-6). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1).This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 6). Both Parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is ready for decision. (Doc. 11; Doc. 12).
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 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 demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382(3)(c). A Plaintiff must show that her disability, not simply her 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 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 her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of her RFC.
Plaintiff raises the following arguments on appeal: The ALJ (1) erred by not finding that Plaintiff meets the requirements of Listing 1.04, and (2) erred by ignoring evidence about Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome ("CTS") in finding that it was not a severe impairment. (Pl. Br. at 12).
A. Whether Plaintiff's Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Was A Severe Impairment:
An impairment is severe within the meaning of the regulations if it significantly limits an individual's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe when medical and other evidence establish only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921. The Supreme Court has adopted a "de minimis standard" with regard to the severity standard. Hudson v. Bowen, 870 F.2d 1392, 1395 (8th Cir. 1989).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have included CTS as a severe impairment. (Pl. Br. at 15-19). After a positive nerve conduction study and a positive Phalen's test, Plaintiff was diagnosed with bilateral CTS by Dr. Mark Powell in December 2007. (Tr. 469-472, 467). She was instructed to wear a Velcro ...