United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division
June 4, 2015
PAULA RENEE MCREYNOLDS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
BARRY A. BRYANT, Magistrate Judge.
Paula Renee McReynolds ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social Security Act ("The Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), and a period of disability under Titles II and XVI of the Act.
Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and (3) (2009), the Honorable P. K. Holmes, III referred this case to this Court for the purpose of making a report and recommendation. In accordance with that referral, and after reviewing the arguments in this case, this Court recommends Plaintiff's case be REVERSED AND REMANDED.
Plaintiff protectively filed her disability applications on August 19, 2011. (Tr. 17). In these applications, Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to COPD, diabetes, bulging discs in her lower back, bulging discs in her neck, depression, anxiety, and residuals of three surgeries on her left forearm. (Tr. 162). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of March 7, 2012. (Tr. 10). These applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 85-88).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on March 16, 2012. (Tr. 92). This hearing request was granted. (Tr. 47-72). Plaintiff's administrative hearing was held on September 20, 2012 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Id. At this hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by counsel, Iva Nell Gibbons. Id. Only Plaintiff testified at this hearing. Id. During this hearing, Plaintiff testified she was thirty-seven (37) years old, which is defined as a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) (2008) (DIB) and 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c) (2008) (SSI). (Tr. 50). As for her education, Plaintiff had obtained her GED, attended some college, and completed an EMT course. (Tr. 50).
On May 24, 2013, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's applications. (Tr. 14-25). In this decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2014. (Tr. 19, Finding 1). The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity ("SGA") since August 1, 2009, her alleged onset date. (Tr. 19, Finding 2). The ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and mood disorder. (Tr. 19, Finding 3). Despite being severe, the ALJ determined those impairments did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the Listings of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 ("Listings"). (Tr. 19-20, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined her RFC. (Tr. 20-23, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints and found her claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform the following:
After careful consideration of the entire record, I find the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she can occasionally climb, balance, crawl, kneel, stoop, and crouch. She can understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine, repetitive tasks. She can respond to usual work situations and routine work changes. She can respond to supervision that is simple, direct, and concrete. She can occasionally interact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's Past Relevant Work ("PRW") and found Plaintiff had no PRW. (Tr. 23, Finding 6). The ALJ then considered whether Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 23-24, Finding 10). To address this issue, the ALJ submitted post-hearing interrogatories to a Vocational Expert ("VE"). Id.
Specifically, the VE responded that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's limitations retained the capacity to perform the following occupations: (1) machine tender with 2, 585 such jobs in Arkansas and 254, 748 such jobs in the nation; (2) production and assembly worker with 9, 506 such jobs in Arkansas and 832, 588 such jobs in the nation; and (3) motel maid with 3, 319 such jobs in Arkansas and 377, 516 such jobs in the nation. (Tr. 24). Based upon this testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform other work and had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from August 1, 2009 through the date of his decision or through May 24, 2013. (Tr. 24, Finding 11).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council's review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision. (Tr. 12-13). On September 9, 2014, the Appeals Council denied this request for review. (Tr. 1-3). On October 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 8, 10. This case is now ready for decision.
2. Applicable Law:
In reviewing this case, this Court is required to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010); Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. See Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See 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 or her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that lasted at least one year and that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. See Cox v. Apfel, 160 F.3d 1203, 1206 (8th Cir. 1998); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines a "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 his or her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
To determine whether the adult claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner uses the familiar five-step sequential evaluation. He determines: (1) whether the claimant is presently engaged in a "substantial gainful activity"; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience); (4) whether the claimant has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there are other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See Cox, 160 F.3d at 1206; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f). The fact finder only considers the plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his or her RFC if the final stage of this analysis is reached. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
In her appeal brief, Plaintiff raises the following six arguments for reversal: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to fully develop the record; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to consider evidence which fairly detracted from his findings; (3) the ALJ erred in assessing her credibility; (4) the ALJ erred in assessing the opinions of her physicians; (5) the ALJ erred in assessing her RFC; and (6) the ALJ erred at Step Five of the Analysis. ECF No. 8 at 1-20. Upon review, the Court finds the ALJ improperly evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints. Thus, the Court will only evaluate Plaintiff's third argument for reversal.
In assessing the credibility of a claimant, the ALJ is required to examine and to apply the five factors from Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984) or from 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929. See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). The factors to consider are as follows: (1) the claimant's daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain; (3) the precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) the dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; and (5) the functional restrictions. See Polaski, 739 at 1322.
The factors must be analyzed and considered in light of the claimant's subjective complaints of pain. See id. The ALJ is not required to methodically discuss each factor as long as the ALJ acknowledges and examines these factors prior to discounting the claimant's subjective complaints. See Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 971-72 (8th Cir. 2000). As long as the ALJ properly applies these five factors and gives several valid reasons for finding that the Plaintiff's subjective complaints are not entirely credible, the ALJ's credibility determination is entitled to deference. See id.; Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006). The ALJ, however, cannot discount Plaintiff's subjective complaints "solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them [the subjective complaints]." Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322.
When discounting a claimant's complaint of pain, the ALJ must make a specific credibility determination, articulating the reasons for discrediting the testimony, addressing any inconsistencies, and discussing the Polaski factors. See Baker v. Apfel, 159 F.3d 1140, 1144 (8th Cir. 1998). The inability to work without some pain or discomfort is not a sufficient reason to find a Plaintiff disabled within the strict definition of the Act. The issue is not the existence of pain, but whether the pain a Plaintiff experiences precludes the performance of substantial gainful activity. See Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259 (8th Cir. 1991).
In the present action, the ALJ did not perform a Polaski evaluation. Instead of evaluating the Polaski factors outlined above and providing valid reasons for discounting Plaintiff's subjective complaints, the ALJ outlined Plaintiff's medical records and then proceeded to discount her subjective complaints because they were not supported by her medical records. Instead of evaluating the Polaski factors, the ALJ stated the following:
I do not discount all of the claimant's subjective complaints and I recognize that she does experience limitations. However, given the objective medical evidence in the record, I find the claimant's residual functional capacity is reasonable, and that she could function within those limitations without experiencing significant exacerbation of her symptoms. I have considered the opinions of the state agency consultants who provided assessments at the initial and reconsideration levels. With the exception of the noted wrist limitations, I give significant weight to their opinions and I note that they also support a finding of "not disabled."
In sum, the above residual functional capacity assessment is supported by the record as whole. As for the claimant's testimony, it is not entirely consistent with the medical evidence as a whole and is discounted to that extent.
(Tr. 23) (emphasis added).
The ALJ's decision to discount Plaintiff's subjective complaints because the medical evidence did not support those allegations was entirely improper under Polaski. See Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322 (recognizing the ALJ cannot discount a claimant's subjective complaints "solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them [the subjective complaints]"). Thus, because the ALJ did not comply with the requirements of Polaski, this case must be reversed and remanded.
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits to Plaintiff, is not supported by substantial evidence and recommends that it be REVERSED AND REMANDED.
The Parties have fourteen (14) days from receipt of this Report and Recommendation in which to file written objections pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The failure to file timely objections may result in waiver of the right to appeal questions of fact. The Parties are reminded that objections must be both timely and specific to trigger de novo review by the district court. See Thompson v. Nix, 897 F.2d 356, 357 (8th Cir. 1990).