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Hopewell v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

June 22, 2015

REBECCA HOPEWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MARK E. FORD, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Rebecca Hopewell, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (hereinafter "the Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). 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 filed her application for DIB on September 26, 2011, alleging an onset date of April 27, 2011, due to back pain, severe migraines, and numbness in the arms, hands, and fingers. Tr. 120, 152, 180-181, 200-201. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 75-80. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held an administrative hearing on September 7, 2012. Tr. 35-67, 81. The Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel. Tr. 30.

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 33 years old and possessed an eleventh grade education. Tr. 38, 153. Plaintiff had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a store clerk, cashier checker, assistant apartment house manager, and home health aide. Tr. 153, 160-179.

On February 22, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's degenerative disk disease ("DDD") in the lumbar spine and migraine headaches were severe, but did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. Tr. 23-24. After partially discrediting Plaintiff's subjective complaints, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of light work. Tr. 24. The ALJ then found Plaintiff could perform her PRW as a convenience store clerk, cashier checker, assistant apartment house manager, and home health aide. Tr. 28.

The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 14, 2014. Tr. 1-5. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. ECF No. 1. This case is before the undersigned by consent of the parties. ECF No. 7. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. ECF Nos. 10, 11.

II. Applicable Law:

This court's role is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings. Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1015 (8th Cir. 2010). 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. Teague v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 611, 614 (8th Cir. 2011). We must affirm the ALJ's decision if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Blackburn v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 853, 858 (8th Cir. 2014). 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. Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015). 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, we must affirm the ALJ's decision. Id.

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). 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). A Plaintiff must show that his or her disability, not simply their 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 or 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 his or her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Only if he reaches the final stage does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his or her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

III. Discussion:

Plaintiff raises one central issue on appeal: whether the ALJ's RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC determination is flawed because he rejected Dr. Ted Honghiran's opinion and improperly discredited Dr. Stephen Carney's statement regarding her migraine headaches. We disagree.

RFC is the most a person can do despite that person's limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. A disability claimant has the burden of establishing his or her RFC. Vossen, 612 F.3d at 1016. "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." Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010); Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844 (8th Cir. 2009). The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that a "claimant's residual functional capacity is a medical question." Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 479 (8th Cir. 2015) (citing Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001). Therefore, an ALJ's ...


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