United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division
June 4, 2015
SHARON GAIL ROBINSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ERIN L. SETSER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Sharon Gail Robinson, 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 November 29, 2011, alleging an inability to work since July 15, 2010, due to a degenerative L4-L5 disc, chronic insomnia, and chronic anxiety. (Tr. 114, 153). An administrative video hearing was held on, November 6, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 34-56).
By written decision dated December 14, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 20). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: moderate lumbar degenerative disc disease with complaint of pain but without radiculopathy. 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. 22). The ALJ found 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 Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a production worker assembler. (Tr. 27).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on January 8, 2014. (Tr. 1-6). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 6). Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Doc. 10; Doc. 11).
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.
Of particular concern to the undersigned is 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). A disability claimant has the burden of establishing his or her RFC. See Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 737 (8th Cir. 2004). "The ALJ determines a claimant's RFC based on all relevant evidence in the record, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant's own descriptions of his or her limitations." Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004); Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005). 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).
In the present case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform a full range of light work. While the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ's determination regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments and her mental RFC, after reviewing the entire record the Court cannot say the same about Plaintiff's alleged physical impairments. In determining that Plaintiff was able to perform a full range of light work, the ALJ gave no weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. James B. Blankenship, who opined that as of January 12, 2012, Plaintiff, along with other limitations, was unable to sit, stand and walk more than two hours each in an eight-hour work day. (Tr. 26, 296-300). The ALJ also gave little weight to Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Rebecca Lewis's, opinion that Plaintiff could not perform substantial gainful employment due to her herniated disc, fatigue and insomnia; and Dr. Jerry Thomas, a non-examining consultant's, opinion that Plaintiff could perform a full range of medium work. (Tr. 26-27, 240, 306). However, the ALJ summarized his RFC determination as follows:
In sum, the above residual functional capacity assessment is supported by the opinions of the state agency experts, the consultative examinations, and the medical evidence of record. There is no treating source opinion that the claimant is more limited than as provided in the above residual functional capacity assessment.
(Tr. 27). Clearly, the ALJ's summation is counter to his initial findings that he gave no or little weight to the State agency expert and treating physicians. Accordingly, the Court believes remand is necessary for the ALJ to explain the inconsistencies within the administrative decision.
On remand, the Court recommends that the ALJ address interrogatories to Dr. Blankenship requesting that he give the objective basis for the opinion that Plaintiff was unable to perform an eight-hour workday as of January 12, 2012.
With this evidence, the ALJ should then re-evaluate Plaintiff's RFC and specifically list in a hypothetical to a vocational expert any limitations that are indicated in the RFC assessments and supported by the evidence.
Accordingly, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, therefore, the denial of benefits to the Plaintiff should be reversed, and this matter should be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).