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McDonald v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

June 1, 2015

WILLIAM MCDONALD PLAINTIFF
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

HON. ERIN L. SETSER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, William McDonald, 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 his claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Titles II and XVI 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 his current applications for DIB and SSI on August 31, 2011, alleging an inability to work since November 15, 2008, due to a panic disorder. (Tr. 111, 113, 130). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured status through September 30, 2010. (Tr. 15, 120). An administrative video hearing was held on July 12, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 27-45).

By written decision dated October 5, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 17).

Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and an anxiety disorder. However, after reviewing all of the evidence presented, 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 found in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Tr. 17-18). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant is limited to work involving simple, routine, repetitive tasks, requiring only simple instructions, and work that involves only incidental contact with the public.

(Tr. 19). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a dishwasher. (Tr. 22).

Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on November 29, 2013. (Tr. 1-4). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 7). Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Doc. 12; Doc. 13).

The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments are presented in the parties’ briefs, and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.

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 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.

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 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 age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

III. Discussion:

Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ failed to provide valid reasons for rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist; 2) the ALJ erred in giving more weight to the opinion of the consultative physicians than the treating psychiatrist; and 3) the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff can return to his past relevant work directly conflicts with the ALJ’s own RFC determination.

A. Insured Status:

In order to have insured status under the Act, an individual is required to have twenty quarters of coverage in each forty-quarter period ending with the first quarter of disability. 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(3)(B). Plaintiff last met this requirement on September 30, 2010. Regarding Plaintiff’s application for DIB, the overreaching issue in this case is the question of whether Plaintiff was disabled during the relevant time period of November 15, 2008, his alleged onset date of disability, through September 30, 2010, the last date he was in insured status under Title II of the Act.

In order for Plaintiff to qualify for DIB he must prove that, on or before the expiration of his insured status he was unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which is expected to last for at least twelve months or result in death. Basinger v. Heckler, 725 F.2d 1166, 1168 (8th Cir. 1984). Records and medical opinions from outside the insured period can only be used in “helping to elucidate a medical condition during the time for which benefits might be rewarded.” Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir.2006) (holding that the parties must focus their attention on claimant's condition at the time she last met insured status requirements).

B. ALJ’s RFC Determination and Medical Opinions[1]:

RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). It is assessed using all relevant evidence in the record. Id. 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). 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 concerning a claimant’s RFC must be supported by medical evidence that addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace. Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003). “[T]he ALJ is [also] required to set forth specifically a claimant’s limitations and to determine how those limitations affect h[is] RFC.” Id.

“The [social security] regulations provide that a treating physician's opinion ... will be granted ‘controlling weight, ’ provided the opinion is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record.’” Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012-13 (8th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). An ALJ may discount such an opinion if other medical assessments are supported by superior medical evidence, or if the treating physician has offered inconsistent opinions. Id. at 1013. Whether the weight accorded the treating physician's opinion by the ALJ is great or small, the ALJ must give good reasons for that weighting. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2))

In the present case, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of examining and non-examining agency medical consultants, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, and his medical records when he determined Plaintiff could perform unskilled work at all exertional levels. The Court notes that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ discussed the medical opinions of examining and non-examining medical professionals, including the opinions of Drs. Terry L. Efird, Letitia C. Hitz, Edwin Jones, Brad F. Williams and Sheri L. Simon, and set forth the reasons for the weight given to the opinions. Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012) (“It is the ALJ’s function to resolve conflicts among the opinions of various treating and examining physicians”)(citations omitted); Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010 at 1012 (the ALJ may reject the conclusions of any medical expert, whether hired by the claimant or the government, if they are inconsistent with the record as a whole).

With regard to Dr. Jones March 30, 2012, RFC Questionnaire, the ALJ set forth why this assessment was given only some weight. Specifically, the ALJ found that Dr. Jones’ opinion that Plaintiff would be absent from work four days a month was not supported by the record as a whole. In making this determination, the ALJ noted that recent records indicated that Plaintiff was doing well on medication, that he was sleeping better, and that he was spending time with friends. A review of the record also revealed that in May of 2012, Dr. Jones noted that Plaintiff reported no hallucinations, that Plaintiff had a logical thought process, an anxious mood, and no cognition impairment. (Tr. 252). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC determination for the relevant time period.

C. Past Relevant Work:

Plaintiff has the initial burden of proving that he suffers from a medically determinable impairment which precludes the performance of past work. Kirby v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1323, 1326 (8th Cir. 1991). Only after the claimant establishes that a disability precludes performance of past relevant work will the burden shift to the Commissioner to prove that the claimant can perform other work. Pickner v. Sullivan, 985 F.2d 401, 403 (8th Cir. 1993).

According to the Commissioner's interpretation of past relevant work, a claimant will not be found to be disabled if he retains the RFC to perform:

1. The actual functional demands and job duties of a particular past relevant job; or

2. The functional demands and job duties of the occupation as generally required by employers throughout the national economy.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e); S.S.R. 82-61 (1982); Martin v. Sullivan, 901 F.2d 650, 653 (8th Cir. 1990)(expressly approving the two part test from S.S.R. 82-61).

The Court notes in this case the ALJ relied upon the testimony of a vocational expert, who after listening to the ALJ’s proposed hypothetical question which included the limitations addressed in the RFC determination discussed above, testified that the hypothetical individual would be able to perform Plaintiff’s past relevant work. See Gilbert v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 602, 604 (8th Cir. 1999) ("The testimony of a vocational expert is relevant at steps four and five of the Commissioner's sequential analysis, when the question becomes whether a claimant with a severe impairment has the residual functional capacity to do past relevant work or other work") (citations omitted).

Plaintiff argues that the skill level for a dishwasher conflicts with the RFC determined by the ALJ. The Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) indicates that the job of a dishwasher has a specific vocational preparation (SVP) level of two. See DICOT § 318.687-010 at www.westlaw.com. A SVP level of one or two constitutes unskilled work. Hulsey v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 917, 923 (8th Cir. 2010). The ability to perform unskilled work falls in line with the RFC determined by the ALJ. Accordingly, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a dishwasher.

D. Subjective Complaints and Credibility Analysis:

The ALJ was required to consider all the evidence relating to Plaintiff’s subjective complaints including evidence presented by third parties that relates to: (1) Plaintiff's daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of his pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of his medication; and (5) functional restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). While an ALJ may not discount a claimant's subjective complaints solely because the medical evidence fails to support them, an ALJ may discount those complaints where inconsistencies appear in the record as a whole. Id. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit observed, “Our touchstone is that [a claimant's] credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003).

After reviewing the administrative record, and the Defendant’s well-stated reasons set forth in her brief, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors. A review of the record revealed that in a Function Report dated September 18, 2011, Plaintiff indicated that he spent his day doing chores around his aunt’s house. (Tr. 146-153). Plaintiff further indicated that he was able to take care of his personal needs, to prepare simple meals, to shop for food, to read and watch television, and to walk around the lake with a friend on Saturday and Sunday. In February of 2012, Plaintiff reported he spent his time hanging out with friends and watching television. (Tr. 256). In March of 2012, Plaintiff indicated that he spent his time “being bored.” (Tr. 254). Plaintiff also reported that he had started hanging out with an old friend who paid for the movies and going out to eat. Accordingly, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not totally credible.

IV. Conclusion:

Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be dismissed with prejudice.


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