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Ruston v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

January 26, 2015

DONNA S. RUSTON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.


MARK FORD, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Donna Ruston, 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 Titles 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 December 23, 2010, alleging an inability to work since October 1, 2009, due to "depression/anxiety/panic disorder, migraines, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, sciatica nerve problems, and lower back." (Tr. 11, 30, 156) For DIB purposes, Plaintiff's date last insured is December 31, 2015. (Tr. 11, 153). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 82-84, 88-91). An administrative hearing was held on April 19, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 27-79).

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was forty-seven years of age and possessed a high school education. (Tr. 19, 36). Plaintiff had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a proofing machine operator, secretary, loan officer, and sales clerk. (Tr. 19, 70-71).

By a written decision dated July 6, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "arthritis, degenerative disc disease, panic disorder, and migraines." (Tr. 13). After reviewing all of the evidence presented, however, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments. (Tr. 13-14). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") "to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567©, "except she is able to perform work where interpersonal contact is incidental to work performed; complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote, few variables, little judgment; and the supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete." (T. 16). With the help of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform her PRW, but could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as grocery stocker and dishwasher. (Tr. 19-20). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability during the relevant time period. (Tr. 20).

Plaintiff requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council on July 18, 2012, which denied that request on November 12, 2013. (Tr. 1-7). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 5). Both parties have filed appeals briefs, and the case is ready for decision. (Doc. 8, 10).

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. "Our review extends beyond examining the record to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's decision; we also consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from that decision." Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). 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).

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); 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. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).

The Commissioner's regulations require the application of a five-step sequential evaluation process to each claim for disability benefits. 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 RFC. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).

III. Discussion

Plaintiff's only argument on appeal is that the ALJ erred in determining her RFC. Plaintiff believes the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to her treating physicians, Dr. Robert Lane Wilson and Dr. Tonya Phillips. (Doc. 8 at 4-9).

RFC is the most a person can do despite that person's limitations and is assessed using all relevant evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). This includes medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant's own descriptions of his limitations. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393. F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005); Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). Limitations resulting from symptoms such as pain are also factored into the assessment. 20 C.F.R. § 404. 1545(a)(3). A "claimant's RFC is a medical question, therefore, an ALJ's RFC determination must be supported by medical evidence that addresses the claimant's ability to function in the workplace." Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001); ...

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