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Nichols v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division

February 25, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, DEFENDANT



Plaintiff, Donald Bennett Nichols, 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 his claim 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 his application for DIB on September 20, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 15, 2011, due to a bad lower back, diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression. (T. 129-130, 172) His application was denied initially on November 13, 2012 (T. 78-80), and denied at reconsideration on February 13, 2013 (T. 85-86). Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing (T. 86-87), and the hearing was held on September 26, 2013, before the Hon. Harold D. Davis, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (T. 23-56) Plaintiff was present and represented by an attorney. (T. 23, 25)

Plaintiff was 43 years old at the time of hearing, and he had a high school education plus some college. (T. 28) He had past relevant work (“PRW”) experience as a roofing supervisor, sales representative of building equipment and supplies, medical voucher clerk, and gas meter installer. (T. 33-34, 53, 174, 184) He states that he last worked on May 15, 2010.[1] He reportedly stopped working because of his condition(s) and other reasons, stating that he “[w]as let go at my job because I couldn’t keep up with the job.” (T. 172) He testified that he received unemployment benefits for “a while” a couple of years ago. (T. 30)

On November 14, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: hypertension; insulin dependent diabetes mellitus; peripheral neuropathy; and herniated nucleus pulposus, status post L5-S1 discectomy. (T. 14) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (T. 14) After partially discrediting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of sedentary work. (T. 14-17)

The ALJ then determined Plaintiff is capable of performing his PRW as a medical voucher clerk, and that Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from January 15, 2011 through the date of his decision. (T. 17) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on December 6, 2014. (T. 1-4) Plaintiff filed this action on February 2, 2015. (Doc. 1) This case is before the undersigned by consent of the parties. (Doc. 5) Both parties have filed appeal briefs (Docs. 9, 11), and the case is now ready for decision.

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. Thus, the Court’s review is limited and deferential to the Commissioner. See Ostronski v. Chater, 94 F.3d 413, 416 (8th Cir. 1996); Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014).

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 disability, not simply his 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 two issues on appeal: (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the ALJ’s decision that Plaintiff is not disabled; and, (2) whether the ALJ erred by discrediting the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician. (Doc. 9, pp. 1, 8-16)

The Court has thoroughly reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments are presented in the parties’ briefs and the ALJ’s opinion, and they ...

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