United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division
MARK E. FORD, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Heather Laughlin, 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 Title 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 protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on August 9 and August 23, 2011, respectively, alleging an onset date of May 29, 2011, due to bipolar disorder, depression, and personality disorder. Tr. 12, 141-148, 185, 202-203. Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 12, 83-89, 94-98. An administrative hearing was held on September 10, 2012. Tr. 12, 41-74. Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 30 years old and possessed the equivalent of a high school education. Tr. 22. She had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a server/waitress, hostess/receptionist, cosmetologist, sales person, and retail cashier. Tr. 21-22, 194-201.
On January 11, 2013, the ALJ found Plaintiff's mood disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and substance addiction disorder to be severe, but concluded they did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. Tr. 14-16. The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff could perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional limitations: "the claimant is able to perform work where [the] interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed, [the] complexity of [the] tasks is learned and performed by rote, with few variables, requiring little judgment, and supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete." Tr. 16. With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform work as a packing machine operator, poultry production worker, production assembler, and small products assembler. Tr. 22.
Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, but said request for review was denied on November 29, 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. 10, 11.
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 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 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 treatment of the medical source statement completed by Plaintiff's mental health treatment team at Health Resources of Arkansas ("HRA"). Under the social security regulations, the commissioner will generally give the opinion of a treating physician concerning the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments "controlling weight" when it "is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)3; see also Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005). However, such weight is neither inherent nor automatic and does not "obviate the need to evaluate the record as whole." Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 937 (8th Cir. 2006); Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 961 (8th Cir. 2001).
The Commissioner "may discount or even disregard the opinion of a treating physician where other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence, or where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions.'" Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010)); accord Hacker, 459 F.3d at 937 (noting we have declined "to give controlling weight to the treating physician's opinion because the treating physician's notes were inconsistent with her... assessment"). In so doing, the ...