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Hilliard v. Colvin

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

April 14, 2015

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


MARK E. FORD, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Billie Hilliard, 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 her application for DIB and SSI on October 11, 2011, alleging an onset date of August 1, 2011, due to fibromyalgia, obesity, a history of Wolff-Parkinson-White ("WPW") syndrome[1], pyelonephritis[2], major depressive disorder/adjustment disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Tr. 132-137, 138-143. The Commissioner denied her applications initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 69-72. At the Plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held an administrative hearing on October 2, 2012. Tr. 35-70. Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 38 years old with a high school education and the completion of some college courses. Tr. 16, 20, 36-37. She had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a customer service clerk, assistant grocery store manager, case manager, receptionist, and a private firm probation officer.[3] Tr. 60-62.

On May 31, 2013, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's fibromyalgia, obesity, history of WPW syndrome, major depressive disorder/adjustment disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder were severe, but concluded they did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. Tr. 13-16. He concluded that the Plaintiff could perform a range of light work. Tr. 16. The ALJ also determined that the Plaintiff could 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 and little use of judgment, and the supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete. Tr. 16. With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ found the Plaintiff could perform work as a food prep worker/cook helper and maid or housekeeper/cleaner. Tr. 21.

The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review on July 23, 2014. Tr. 1-4. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. ECF No. 1. This matter is before the undersigned for report and recommendation. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. ECF Nos. 8, 9.

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. We must affirm the ALJ's decision 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, we must affirm the decision of the ALJ. 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 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).

III. Discussion:

Plaintiff raises the following issues on appeal: 1) The ALJ failed to consider her subjective complaints; 2) The ALJ did not properly develop the record; 3) The ALJ failed to consider evidence detracting from his findings; 4) The ALJ assigned improper weight to the opinions of both treating and non-examining physicians; 5) The ALJ determined an improper RFC; and, 6) The ALJ failed to satisfy his burden of proof at step 5 of the sequential evaluation.

A. Subjective Complaints:

In her first argument, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to consider her subjective complaints and to conduct a proper Polaski analysis. We disagree. As the Eighth Circuit has observed, "Our touchstone is that [a Plaintiff's] credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide." Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). In discrediting one's subjective complaints, however, an ALJ is required to consider all available evidence on the record as a whole and is required to make an express credibility determination. Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 971 (8th Cir. 2000). Because of the difficulty evaluating medical symptoms such as pain and suffering, the Social Security Administration and this court have established guidelines for evaluating a claimant's subjective complaints. Factors to be considered include the claimant's daily activities; the duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain; precipitating and aggravating factors; dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; and functional restrictions. Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3) (2003). Additional factors include treatments, other than medication, that the claimant has used to relieve pain or other symptoms, and any other measures that the claimant ...

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