United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division
June 4, 2015
EILEEN ZAROWSKY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ERIN L. SETSER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Eileen Zarowsky, 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 claims 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 current application for DIB on June 28, 2011, alleging an inability to work since April 12, 2007, due to neck problems and low back problems. (Tr. 113, 177). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured status through September 30, 2012. (Tr. 16, 126). An administrative video hearing was held on September 6, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 29-53).
By written decision dated December 21, 2102, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 18). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the cervical spine and osteopenia. However, after reviewing all of the evidence presented, the ALJ determined that through the date last insured, 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. 18-19). The ALJ found that through the date last insured, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that prior to the expiration of her insured status, Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a receptionist and a telephone solicitor. (Tr. 22). In the alternative, the ALJ, with the use of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (Grids), found Plaintiff was not disabled prior to September 30, 2012. (Tr. 23).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on December 19, 2013. (Tr. 1-6). 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 appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Doc. 9; Doc. 10).
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 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 her disability, not simply her 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 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 her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine did not medically equal Listing 1.04A; 2) the ALJ erred in discounting Dr. Keller's opinion; 3) the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and migraines are not severe impairments; 4) the ALJ erred in discounting Plaintiff's subjective complaints; and 5) the ALJ's RFC determination is not based on substantial evidence.
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, 2012. 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 April 12, 2007, her alleged onset date of disability, through September 30, 2012, the last date she was in insured status under Title II of the Act.
In order for Plaintiff to qualify for DIB she must prove that, on or before the expiration of her insured status she 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. Plaintiff's Impairments:
At Step Two of the sequential analysis, the ALJ is required to determine whether a claimant's impairments are severe. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). To be severe, an impairment only needs to have more than a minimal impact on a claimant's ability to perform work-related activities. See Social Security Ruling 96-3p. The Step Two requirement is only a threshold test so the claimant's burden is minimal and does not require a showing that the impairment is disabling in nature. See Brown v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987). The claimant, however, has the burden of proof of showing she suffers from a medically-severe impairment at Step Two. See Mittlestedt v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir.2000).
While the ALJ did not find Plaintiff's alleged degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine and migraines to be severe impairments, the ALJ specifically discussed these alleged impairments in the decision, and clearly stated that he considered all of Plaintiff's impairments, including the impairments that were found to be non-severe. (Tr. 17). See Swartz v. Barnhart, 188 F.Appx. 361, 368 (6th Cir.2006) (where ALJ finds at least one "severe" impairment and proceeds to assess claimant's RFC based on all alleged impairments, any error in failing to identify particular impairment as "severe" at step two is harmless); Elmore v. Astrue, 2012 WL 1085487 *12 (E.D. Mo. March 5, 2012); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(2) (in assessing RFC, ALJ must consider "all of [a claimant's] medically determinable impairments..., including... impairments that are not severe'"); § 416.923 (ALJ must "consider the combined effect of all [the claimant's] impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient severity"). Thus, the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's alleged degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine and migraines are not "severe" impairments does not constitute reversible error.
C. Listing 1.04A:
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to determine that Plaintiff's impairment medically equals Listing 1.04(A) for disorders of the spine, as listed in the Listing of Impairments pursuant to 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
The burden of proof is on the Plaintiff to establish that her impairment meets or equals a listing. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-31, 110 S.Ct. 885, 107 L.Ed.2d 967 (1990). To meet a listing, an impairment must meet all of the listing's specified criteria. Id. at 530, 110 S.Ct. 885 ("An impairment that manifests only some of these criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify."); Johnson v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 1067, 1070 (8th Cir. 2004). "Medical equivalence must be based on medical findings." 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(b) (2003); Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 531 ("a claimant... must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment"). In this case, the ALJ explicitly found that no treating or examining physician mentioned findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of a listed impairment, and that the medical evidence does not show medical findings that are the same or equivalent to a listed impairment.
The Court finds, based upon the record as a whole, as well as the well-stated reasons outlined in the Defendant's brief, that Plaintiff's argument is without merit, and there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make an informed decision. After reviewing the entire evidence of record, the Court finds there is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's impairments do not medically equal Listing 1.04A.
D. ALJ's RFC Determination and Medical Opinions:
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 her 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)).
The Court finds, based upon the well-stated reasons outlined in the Defendant's brief, that Plaintiff's argument is without merit, and there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make an informed decision. The ALJ considered the medical assessments of examining and non-examining agency medical consultants, Plaintiff's subjective complaints, and her medical records when he determined Plaintiff could perform a full range of light work. The ALJ also discussed the medical opinions of examining and non-examining medical professionals, as well as "other source" medical opinions completed by John L. Keller, D.C., 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 respect to Dr. Keller's letters and opinion opining that Plaintiff would be unable to perform even sedentary work (Tr. 244, 336, 418), the ALJ stated that he gave Dr. Keller's little weight. (Tr. 21). In doing so, the ALJ first pointed out that Dr. Keller is considered an unacceptable medical source. The ALJ also pointed out that Dr. Keller's opinion is not supported by the objective medical evidence or Dr. Keller's own treatment notes. A review of the record also revealed that Plaintiff did not complain of degenerative pain to her treating physician, Dr. John Nolen, who was treating her during the same time period as Dr. Keller. In fact, Dr. Nolen's treatment notes revealed that Plaintiff was consistently found to have a supple neck and normal gait and station. (Tr. 303, 323, 358, 365). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ's RFC determination for the relevant time period.
E. 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 her pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of her 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. As noted by the ALJ, Plaintiff indicated in a Function Report dated November 10, 2011, that she was able to prepare simple meals, walk and take care of her dog, perform household chores, shop for groceries and go to the Post Office, watch television, read, draw and paint, and spend time with others. (Tr. 200-208). The record further revealed that Plaintiff was able to travel some during the relevant time period, and that she cared for her mother for almost eight months starting in March of 2007.
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of limitation, she has not established that she was unable to engage in any gainful activity during the relevant time period. Accordingly, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff's subjective complaints were not totally credible.
F. Hypothetical Questions to the Vocational Expert:
Plaintiff has the initial burden of proving that she 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 she 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). Accordingly, the ALJ properly concluded Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a receptionist and a telephone solicitor.
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.