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Cooperwood v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

April 11, 2016

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


BETH DEERE, Magistrate Judge.


The following recommended disposition was prepared for U.S. District Judge James M. Moody, Jr. 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 Moody may adopt the recommended disposition without independently reviewing all of the record evidence.

Reasoning for Recommended Disposition

Julius L. Cooperwood seeks judicial review of the denial of his fourth application for supplemental security income (SSI).[3] Mr. Cooperwood last worked as a restaurant dishwasher; he lost his job when the restaurant closed.[4] Mr. Cooperwood based disability on high blood pressure, panic attacks, medication side effects, right knee problems, and poor right-eye vision.[5]

The Commissioner's decision. Because SSI benefits are not payable prior to the date of application, the Commissioner's ALJ considered whether Mr. Cooperwood was disabled beginning May 16, 2012.[6] The ALJ identified learning disorder, anxiety disorder with pain and reactive features, status post right knee meniscectomy, hypertension, and obesity as severe impairments.[7] The ALJ determined Mr. Cooperwood could do some light work.[8] Because a vocational expert identified available light work, the ALJ determined Mr. Cooperwood was not disabled and denied the application.[9]

After the Commissioner's Appeals Council denied a request for review, [10] the decision became a final decision for judicial review.[11] Mr. Cooperwood filed this case to challenge the decision.[12] In reviewing the decision, the court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision and whether the ALJ made a legal error.[13] This recommendation explains why the court should affirm the decision.

Mr. Cooperwood allegations. Mr. Cooperwood challenges the determination that he could do light work. He claims the ALJ should have ordered a physical consultative exam to evaluate his right knee and the effects of obesity. He contends the ALJ failed to do a function-by-function analysis of his ability to work and that a function-by-function analysis would show that his right knee and obesity prevent light work. He complains that the ALJ did not account for limitations in social functioning; the ALJ failed to identify inconsistences weighing against his credibility; the hypothetical question omitted supported symptoms; and the ALJ relied on an incomplete exhibit list. For these reasons, he maintains, substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision.[14]

Applicable legal principles. For substantial evidence to support the decision, a reasonable mind must accept the evidence as adequate to show that Mr. Cooperwood could do some light work and that work existed that he could do. "Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds."[15] The ALJ required light work involving simple, routine, repetitive tasks. A reasonable mind would accept the evidence as adequate for the following reasons:

1. Medical evidence establishes no disabling symptoms. A claimant must prove disability with medical evidence; allegations are not enough to prove disability.[16] Treatment records suggest right-knee surgery triggered the challenged application, because one month before applying, Mr. Cooperwood underwent arthroscopic surgery on the right knee.[17] The injury necessitating the surgery likely limited the ability to work before surgery, but the surgeon released Mr. Cooperwood to work one week after surgery.[18] Mr. Cooperwood reported a decrease in pain and the knee could bear weight.[19] The surgeon instructed Mr. Cooperwood to return if symptoms persisted, but he did not return. This history indicates surgery relieved pre-surgery symptoms. Agency medical experts projected that Mr. Cooperwood would recover to do medium work.[20]
After that time, Mr. Cooperwood complained about right knee pain from time to time.[21] Medical providers prescribed medication for pain relief. Prescribed treatment indicates symptoms could be controlled. Symptoms that can be controlled by treatment are not disabling.[22]
2. The ALJ fairly and fully developed the record. The ALJ must fairly and fully develop the record as to the matters at issue.[23] Mr. Cooperwood claims the ALJ should have ordered a physical consultative exam, but an ALJ must "order medical examinations and tests only if the medical records presented to him do not give sufficient medical evidence to determine whether the claimant is disabled."[24]
Mr. Cooperwood saw medical providers fairly regularly for management of hypertension. The ALJ had associated treatment records, the knee surgeon's records, and emergency room records. Treatment records document Mr. Cooperwood's weight. The records document no limitations flowing from the right knee or obesity. No need existed for a consultative physical exam. Treatment records provided sufficient medical evidence to determine whether Mr. Cooperwood was disabled. Mr. Cooperwood says the ALJ acted upon an incomplete exhibit list, but the record shows that the ALJ considered all of the evidence.
3. Substantial evidence supports the credibility assessment. Because medical evidence does not support the claim, the success of Mr. Cooperwood's application depends on the credibility of his subjective complaints. "Subjective complaints may be discounted if there are inconsistencies in the evidence as a whole."[25] Mr. Cooperwood contends that the ALJ failed to identify inconsistencies undermining his credibility, but the ALJ contrasted allegations with activities of daily living, treatment records, and mental diagnostic evaluations.[26] Mr. Cooperwood's real complaint is the result - the ALJ's conclusion that treatment notes fail to support subjective ...

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