United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division
KENNETH D. MARTIN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ERIN L. SETSER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Kenneth D. Martin, 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 claim for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Title 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 application for SSI on April 30, 2012, alleging an inability to work since April 30, 2009, due to asthma, bipolar, and suicidal tendencies. (Tr. 135-138, 157, 162). For SSI purposes, the relevant time period begins the date the application is filed. Cruse v. Bowen, 867 F.2d 1183, 1185 (8th Cir. 1989); 20 C.F.R. § 416.203(b). Accordingly, the relevant time period in this case is from April 30, 2012, to January 24, 2014, the date of the ALJ's decision. An administrative hearing was held on May 7, 2013, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and he and his wife testified. (Tr. 29-79).
By written decision dated January 24, 2014, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe - asthma; major depressive disorder/depressive disorder, not otherwise specified (NOS); and personality disorder, NOS, with cluster B traits. (Tr. 13). 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. 14). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the claimant must avoid even moderate exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gasses[sic], poor ventilation and the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards including no driving as a part of work. The claimant is further able to perform work where interpersonal contact with coworkers and supervisors is incidental to the work performed, there is no contact with the general public, the complexity of 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 help of the vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, but there were other jobs Plaintiff would be able to perform, such as poultry production worker - deboner and production line assembler (light work); and small production machine operator and small product assembler (sedentary work). (Tr. 22).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on February 26, 2014. (Tr. 1-4). 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. (Docs. 11, 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). The court "will disturb the ALJ's decision only if it falls outside the available zone of choice.'" Papesh v. Colvin, No. 14-2230, 2015 WL 3396586 at *4 (8th Cir. May 27, 2015)(quoting Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 936 (8th Cir. 2006)). An ALJ's decision is not outside the zone of choice simply because the court might have reached a different conclusion had it been the initial finder of fact. Papesh, 2015 WL 3396586 at *4 (quoting Bradley v. Astrue, 528 F.3d 1113, 1115 (8tyh Cir. 2008).
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)(D). A Plaintiff must show that his disability, not simply his impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner's regulations require him to apply a five-step sequential evaluation process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant had engaged in substantial gainful activity since filing his claim; (2) whether the claimant had a severe physical and/or mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) met or equaled an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevented the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant was able to perform other work in the national economy given his age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §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 RFC. See McCoy v. Schneider, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §416.920.
Plaintiff raises the following issues in this matter: 1) The ALJ erred in his RFC determination by failing to properly consider Plaintiff's severe mental impairments; and 2) The ALJ erred in failing to find that Plaintiff's impairment does not meet or at least equal Listing 12.04. (Doc. 11).
A. RFC Determination:
Plaintiff argues that evidence of symptom-free periods do not compel a finding that disability based on a mental disorder has gone into some sort of remission, and that the ALJ resorted to oversimplification when using Plaintiff's failure to take all of his medications to reinforce his conclusions. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ's reasons for dismissing his GAF scores of "50 or below" are not persuasive.
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 his RFC." Id. "The ALJ is permitted to base its RFC determination on a non-examining physician's opinion and other medical evidence in the record.'" Barrows v. Colvin, No. C 13-4087-MWB, 2015 WL 1510159 at *15 (quoting from Willms v. Colvin, Civil No. 12-2871, 2013 WL 6230346 (D. Minn. Dec. 2, 2013).
The record reflects that on May 10, 2012, Plaintiff was admitted to Baxter Regional Medical Center with complaints of suicidal ideations. (Tr. 428). Upon admission, Plaintiff was intoxicated and had fractured his hand after punching a wall. (Tr. 351, 429). On May 11, 2012, Plaintiff reported that he drank alcohol weekly in excess. (Tr. 352). At that time, Plaintiff was diagnosed as follows:
Axis I: Depressive d/o NOS, provisional, R/O MDD Alcohol Dependence
Axis II: Deferred
Axis III: Asthma; GERD; HBP
Axis IV: Problems with primary support
Axis V: GAF - 50
(Tr. 353). Plaintiff agreed to limit his alcohol consumption. (Tr. 353).
In a report dated May 21, 2012, Adam Brazas, Ph.D., Psychologist, of Health Resources of Arkansas (HRA), reported that although Plaintiff attempted suicide 14 other times, he never went to the hospital, but slept it off. (Tr. 356). His attempts were either by overdosing or cutting, and he did not cut deep enough to bleed to death. (Tr. 359). Plaintiff reported having two ...