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Swanson v. Colvin

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

March 10, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, DEFENDANT



Plaintiff, Barbara Swanson (“Plaintiff”), seeks judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under the provisions of Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies, and therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), judicial review is now appropriate. After having reviewed the record for the purpose of determining whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.

I. Procedural Background

Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on November 30, 2012, claiming disability beginning April 1, 2007, due to COPD, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and mental issues. (Tr. 129-136, 158) The State Disability Determination Services denied Plaintiff’s application initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 51-60, 62-74) Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”), Hon. Bill Jones, conducted a hearing, at Plaintiff’s request, on September 4, 2013, at which Plaintiff and Montie Lumpkin, a vocational expert, testified. (Tr. 22-44) Plaintiff appeared at the hearing without an attorney or other representative. (Tr. 22)

Plaintiff previously filed an application for DIB on September 3, 2011. That claim was also denied at the initial and reconsideration levels. Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing on January 31, 2012. (Tr. 49) By letter dated August 15, 2012, Plaintiff’s representative, Lawrence Fitting, asked to withdraw the hearing request, and it was dismissed on August 17, 2012. (Tr. 49) The reconsideration determination dated January 27, 2012, became the final decision on her claim through that date. (Tr. 49) Accordingly, the relevant period for the instant claim is from January 28, 2012, through September 30, 2012, the date Plaintiff was last insured.

By written decision dated October 17, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and degenerative joint disease of her left knee. (Tr. 10) After reviewing all of the evidence presented, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal the level of severity of any impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I. (Tr. 13)

The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except that the claimant would need to avoid even moderate exposure to dust, odors, gases, poor ventilation and similar environments. (Tr. 13)

With the assistance of the testimony of the vocational expert (the “VE”), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 15) However, after considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. (Tr. 15) The ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability (as defined in the Social Security Act) at any time from January 28, 2012, through September 30, 2012. (Tr. 16)

Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ’s unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council (Tr. 4), and this request was denied on December 8, 2014. (Tr. 1-3) The ALJ’s decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner, and Plaintiff’s administrative remedies were exhausted. (Tr. 1) Plaintiff subsequently filed her Complaint herein seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision. (Doc. 1) Both parties have filed briefs and this case is before the Court for decision. (Docs. 8-9)

II. Standard of Review and 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 her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and that prevents her 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 her disability, not simply her 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 she 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. Analysis

The ALJ in this case found Plaintiff was not disabled and had the RFC and capability to successfully adjust to other unskilled occupations performed at the sedentary level that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 16) Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred as: (1) Plaintiff did not make a knowing and intelligent ...

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