United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division
MARK E. FORD, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Perry Finochiaro, 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 his claim for a period of disability, 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:
The Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB and SSI on May 27, 2011, and April 6, 2012, respectively, alleging an onset date of June 6, 2010,  due to back and knee pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), high blood pressure, and anxiety. Tr. 11, 21, 115-117, 176-177. His claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 63-64. An administrative hearing was then held on April 10, 2012. Tr. 26-62. Plaintiff was both present and represented by counsel.
At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was 48 years old and possessed an eleventh grade education. Tr. 30. He had past relevant work ("PRW") as a security guard, carpenter, and mechanic. Tr. 20, 150, 168-175.
On August 15, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") concluded that, although severe, Plaintiff's hypertension; minimal osteoarthritis/degenerative disk disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine; mild scoliosis of the thoracic spine; hepatitis C; and, COPD did not meet or equal any Appendix 1 listing. Tr. 13-15. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff maintained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work involving occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. Tr. 15. He also found that the Plaintiff must avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and hazards including driving. With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff could return to his PRW as a security guard. Tr. 20.
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 20, 2013. Tr. 1-4. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. ECF No. 1. This case is before the undersigned by consent of the parties. ECF No. 6. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. ECF No. 16, 17.
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. Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. "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." Id. As long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's decision, the court may not reverse the decision simply because substantial evidence exists in the record to support a contrary outcome, or because the court would have decided the case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). If we find it possible "to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence, and one of those positions represents the Secretary's findings, we must affirm the decision of the Secretary." Cox, 495 F.3d at 617 (internal quotation and alteration omitted).
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 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 disability, not simply his impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months.
A. The Evaluation Process:
The Commissioner's regulations require him 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).
In the present case, the record makes clear that the Plaintiff suffers with some degree of impairment to his cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine that has been treated via Hydrocodone and Soma. Substantial evidence does not, however, support the ALJ's RFC determination. RFC is the most a person can do despite that person's limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). 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). Adequate medical evidence must therefore exist that addresses the claimant's ability to function in the workplace. See Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003). The ALJ is not at liberty to make medical ...