United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division
JAMES F. DICKEY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ERIN L. SETSER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, James Dickey, 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, disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), and supplemental security income ("SSI") 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 applications for DIB and SSI on September 23, 2011, alleging an inability to work since July 27, 2010, due to back problems and anxiety. (Tr. 12, 122-131, 168). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured status through December 31, 2013. (Tr. 14, 164). His claim was initially denied on November 29, 2011, and denied upon reconsideration on January 31, 2012. (67-70, 79-81). An administrative hearing was held on August 24, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 28-50). By a written decision dated November 9, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that during the relevant time period Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and hearing problems. (Tr. 14). After reviewing all of the evidence presented, the ALJ determined 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. 15). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, "except he is limited to occasional climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds, stooping, and crouching; and frequent climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, kneeling, and crawling. He is also limited to jobs that do not require fine hearing capability." (Tr. 16). With the help of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work ("PRW"), but Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as machine tenderer, inspector, and assembler. (Tr. 22, 47-48). The ALJ then found Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined by the Act during the relevant time period. (Tr. 22).
Plaintiff next requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on November 4, 2013. (Tr. 1-3). 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. 13).
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 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 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 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. Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his RFC.
Plaintiff raises the following arguments on appeal: The ALJ erred (1) by not considering all of his impairments in combination, (2) by disregarding his subjective complaints of pain, (3) by improperly weighing the opinion of a treating physician, and (4) by determining an improper RFC. Plaintiff partially attributes all of these errors to an underlying failure to develop the record.
A. Severe Impairments
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).
Although some evidence in the record indicated Plaintiff had a mental impairment from anxiety or social phobia, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's only severe impairments were degenerative disc disease ...