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Pfeiffer v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas

July 10, 2015

Teri Gayle Pfeiffer, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


J. THOMAS RAY, Magistrate Judge.


The following recommended disposition was prepared for U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson. A party to this dispute may file written objections to this recommendation. An objection must be specific and state the factual and/or legal basis for the objection. An objection to a factual finding must identify the finding and the evidence supporting the objection. Objections must be filed with the clerk of the court no later than 14 days from the date of this recommendation.[1] The objecting party must serve the opposing party with a copy of an objection. Failing to object within 14 days waives the right to appeal questions of fact.[2] If no objections are filed, Judge Wilson may adopt the recommended disposition without independently reviewing all of the record evidence.

Reasoning for Recommended Disposition

Teri Gayle Pfeiffer seeks judicial review of the denial of her application for disability insurance benefits.[3] Pfeiffer claims she has been disabled since August 2010 when she lost her job as a registered nurse. She bases disability on depression, sciatic nerve pain, cervical spinal stenosis, leg neuropathy, asthma, diabetes, GERD, hypothyroidism, and migraine headaches.[4]

The Commissioner's decision. After considering the application, the Commissioner's ALJ issued a partially favorable decision.[5] The ALJ determined Pfeiffer became disabled at age 55 and awarded benefits beginning at age 55. The ALJ determined that before age 55, Pfeiffer had severe impairments - degenerative disc disease, diabetes, neuropathy, migraines, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, and depression[6] - but she could do some light work.[7] Because a vocational expert identified available light work, [8] the ALJ determined Pfeiffer was not disabled before age 55 and denied the application for earlier benefits.[9]

After the Appeals Council denied a request for review, [10] the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision for the purpose of judicial review.[11] Pfeiffer filed this case to challenge the denial of benefits before age 55.[12] In reviewing the decision, the court must decide whether substantial evidence supports the decision and whether the ALJ made a legal error.[13] This recommendation explains why substantial evidence supports the determination about Pfeiffer's ability to work before age 55.

Pfeiffer's allegations. Pfeiffer claims she was disabled when she lost her job in August 2010. She maintains the ALJ understated her back and neck impairments, and overstated her ability to use her hands. She contends the ALJ erred in evaluating the credibility of her allegations of severe pain and limitations with the hands. She says the ALJ failed to conduct a function-by-function analysis of her ability to work. She claims the ALJ cherry-picked the evidence to justify the decision. For these reasons, she argues, substantial evidence does not support the decision.[14]

Applicable legal principles. In reviewing a decision denying an application for disability benefits, the court must determine whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.[15] Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find adequate to support the decision.[16] The court must determine whether a reasonable mind would accept the evidence adequate to show Pfeiffer could do some light work before age 55.

"Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds."[17] The ALJ reduced light work by requiring: (1) no more than frequent handling and fingering; (2) no more than frequent rotation, flexion, and extension of the neck; (3) no concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poor ventilation; and (4)work involving incidental interpersonal contact, tasks learned and performed by rote with few variables and little judgment, and simple, direct, concrete supervision. Pfeiffer says the ALJ conducted no function-by-function analysis, but the ALJ's limitations evidence such analysis.

The evidence doesn't support Pfeiffer's allegation of disabling back and neck pain. Pfeiffer relies, in substantial part, on allegations of disabling back and neck pain, but allegations aren't enough to prove disability. A determination about a claimant's ability to work must be supported by medical evidence.[18] The medical evidence shows degenerative changes in the lumbar and cervical spine that support Pfeiffer's complaints of low back and neck pain, [19] but treatment controlled her symptoms.[20] "If an impairment can be controlled by treatment or medication, it cannot be considered disabling."[21]

Pfeiffer's complaints about her hands surfaced too late to serve as a basis for benefits before age 55. An impairment must be disabling for a continuous period of not less than 12 months to serve as a basis for disability.[22] Four months before age 55, Pfeiffer complained about right hand pain.[23] Four months is insufficient to serve as a basis for disability before age 55. She later complained about intermittent hand numbness, but she had reached age 55.[24]

Medical opinion evidence supports the ALJ's determination about Pfeiffer's physical ability to work. In determining a claimant's ability to work, an ALJ asks a medical expert about whether the claimant's impairment(s) can reasonably be expected to produce alleged symptoms.[25] The ALJ consulted three medical experts. According to the experts, Pfeiffer could have done light work before age 55.[26] A sometimes-treating physician provided the only contrary medical opinion.[27] The physician reported numerous limitations, including the need to avoid pulmonary irritants. This created a conflict.

When medical opinion evidence conflicts, the ALJ must resolve the conflict. In resolving a conflict, an "ALJ may reject the conclusions of any medical expert, whether hired by the claimant or the government, if they are inconsistent with the record as a whole."[28] Here, the ALJ credited the opinion to the extent it supported light work and the need to ...

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