United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division
CHERYL L. SAWYER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MARK E. FORD, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Cheryl Sawyer, 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 applications for DIB and SSI on March 7and March 8, 2011, respectively, alleging an onset date of September 1, 2009, due to a history of back injury, depression, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), neck pain, left knee pain, and feet pain. Tr. 144, 159-160, 199-200, 211, 225. Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 63-66, 79-83. An administrative hearing was held on July 3, 2012. Tr. 37-62. Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 44 years old and possessed the equivalent of a high school education and certification as a nurse aide. Tr. 145. She had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a molding machine tender, certified nursing assistant ("CNA"), and deck hull assembler. Tr. 23, 39-40, 42-44, 151-158, 170-181, 226-227.
On August 17, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff's depressive disorder, obesity, neck and back pain, and COPD 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. 16-18. The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff could perform sedentary work but must avoid even moderate exposure to fumes, odors, gases, poor ventilation and similar environments. Tr. 19. In addition, he found the Plaintiff to be limited to work "involving simple, routine, and repetitive tasks involving only simple, work-related decisions, with few, if any, workplace changes" and requiring no more than incidental contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. Tr. 19. With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform work as a clerical worker, assembler, and inspector. Tr. 24.
Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, but said request for review was denied on September 21, 2013. Tr. 1-7. 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).
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because his RFC determination is inconsistent with the opinion of the only physical examiner of record and is not supported by the record as a whole. The court has reviewed the briefs filed by the parties, the transcript of the proceedings before the Commission, including a review of the hearing before the ALJ, the medical records, and relevant administrative records and finds the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person's limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). A disability claimant has the burden of establishing his or her RFC. See Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 737 (8th Cir. 2004). "The ALJ determines a claimant's RFC based on all relevant evidence in the record, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant's own descriptions of his or her limitations." Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844 (8th Cir. 2009) ; see also Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010) (ALJ is responsible for determining RFC based on all relevant evidence, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and claimant's own description of his limitations). 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 ...