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Ehrlich v. Colvin

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

February 9, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.


MARK E. FORD, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Terri Ellen Ehrlich, 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 Title 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 October 24, 2011, alleging an inability to work since April 1, 2009, due to degenerative disc disease in her neck and back, carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, pain in her hips, knees, and ankles, and depression. (T. 47-50, 134-137, 158) For DIB purposes, Plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2014. (T. 154) Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (T. 75-77, 84-85) An administrative hearing was held on November 16, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (T. 38-70)

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was forty-nine years of age and possessed a tenth grade education. (T. 44) Plaintiff had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a cook and housekeeper for a monastery. (T. 46, 53-54, 68-69, 165, 174) Plaintiff had been employed at the monastery for twenty years. (T. 46, 174)

By a written decision dated March 15, 2013, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: back disorder (cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease post cervical fusion), osteoarthritis, hypertension, and depression. (T. 17). Regarding these severe impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's back impairment could reasonably cause pain and limit the Plaintiff's sitting, standing, and lifting; that Plaintiff's osteoarthritis could reasonably be expected to cause pain and limit the Plaintiff's sitting, standing, walking, lifting and carrying; that Plaintiff's hypertension could reasonably be expected to cause headaches, dizziness, or confusion, or require treatment with medications that cause adverse side effects that limit the Plaintiff's ability to perform work activities; and, that Plaintiff's mood disorder could reasonably affect the Plaintiff's concentration, persistence, and pace, or impair the ability to interact appropriately with co-workers, supervisors, and the public. (T. 17-18) 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. (T. 18-20) The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except as follows: to frequently lift and/or carry ten pounds and occasionally twenty pounds, to sit for a total of six hours in an eight hour day, to stand and/or walk for a total of six hours in an eight hour day, and to perform unskilled work that includes simple tasks with simple instructions. (T. 20) With the help of a Vocational Expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform all of her PRW, but that she could perform her PRW as a Housekeeper. (T. 23-24) Considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (T. 24-25) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability during the relevant time period. (T. 25)

Plaintiff requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council on May 8, 2013. (T. 10) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 7, 2014. (T. 1-6). Plaintiff then filed this action on March 19, 2014. (Doc. 1) The case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 11) Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is ready for decision. (Docs. 13, 14)

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 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); 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. 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 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

The ALJ has a "duty to develop the record fully and fairly, even if... the claimant is represented by counsel.'" Boyd v. Sullivan, 960 F.2d 733, 736 (8th Cir.1992) (quoting Warner v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 428, 431 (8th Cir.1983)); Frankl v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 935, 938 (8th Cir. 1995) (ALJ must fully and fairly develop the record so that a just determination of disability may be made). This is so because an administrative hearing is not an adversarial proceeding. Henrie v. Dept. of Health & Human Serv., 13 F.3d 359, 361 (10th Cir.1993). "[T]he goals of the Secretary and the advocates should be the same: that deserving claimants who apply for benefits receive justice." Sears v. Bowen, 840 F.2d 394, 402 (7th Cir.1988). That duty may include seeking clarification from treating physicians if a crucial issue is undeveloped or underdeveloped. Smith v. Barnhart 435 F.3d 926, 930 (8th Cir. 2006). There is no bright line rule indicating when the Commissioner has or has not adequately developed the record; rather, such an assessment is made on a case-by-case basis. Battles v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 43, 45 (8th Cir. 1994).

It is incumbent upon the ALJ to establish by medical evidence that the claimant has the requisite RFC. If a treating physician has not issued an opinion which can be adequately related to the disability standard, the ALJ is obligated to address a precise inquiry to the physician so as to ...

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