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Cunningham v. Colvin

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

July 2, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.


BARRY A. BRYANT, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Evert Cunningham, 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 a period of disability, disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), and supplemental security income ("SSI") under the provisions of Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). The Parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment, and conducting all post-judgment proceedings. (ECF No. 6).[1] Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.

I. Background:

Plaintiff protectively filed his applications for DIB and SSI on October 9, 2012, alleging an onset date of June 8, 2012, due to arthritis, slipped discs, diabetes, a spinal tumor, and kidney problems. (Tr. 17, 233). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff retains insured status through December 31, 2016. (Tr. 19, Finding 1). Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. An administrative hearing was held on September 27, 2013, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 35-73). A vocational expert ("VE") was also present and testified. (Tr. 67-71).

On April 15, 2014, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") entered an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 17-27). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "osteoarthritis in knees and back, diabetes mellitus, and neuropathy." (Tr. 17, Finding 3). After reviewing all of the evidence presented, however, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any impairment listing. (Tr. 20, Finding 4).

The ALJ next evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined his RFC. (Tr. 19-26). The ALJ first evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints and found he was not entirely credible. (Tr. 20-21, 25). The ALJ then found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work except "he is limited to occasional climbing, balancing, kneeling, crouching, stooping, and crawling." (T. 20, Finding 5).

With the help of the VE, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work ("PRW"). (Tr. 25, Finding 6). Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ then found Plaintiff could perform the requirements of the representative occupations of addresser, charge account clerk, and ticket counter. (Tr. 26-27, Finding 10). The ALJ then concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 27, Finding 11).

On April 28, 2014, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's unfavorable decision, which denied the request on August 13, 2014. (Tr. 1-3). On October 3, 2014, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. (ECF No. 1). The Parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on October 21, 2014. (ECF No. 6). Both Parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is ready for decision. (ECF Nos. 11, 12).

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 a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. "Our review extends beyond examining the record to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's decision; we also consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from that decision." Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). 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 to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists in the record to support 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).

To determine whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation. She 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 RFC to perform his PRW; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove there are other jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f); Cox, 160 F.3d at 1206. The fact finder only considers Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his RFC if the final stage of this analysis is reached. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

III. Discussion:

Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by: (1) not ordering a post-hearing consultative examination, and (2) by giving great weight to the consulting physicians' opinions. (ECF No. 11 at 5-10).

Plaintiff's treatment notes establish he suffered from a range of medical conditions including hypertension, diabetes, moderate to severe degenerative disc disease, a spinal tumor, and diabetic neuropathy. (Tr. 327-329, 373-374, 438-443). In addition to Plaintiff's treatment notes, the record includes a consultative examination from State physician Dr. Chester Lawrence Carlson and ...

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