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Higgins v. Colvin

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

May 23, 2016

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


          JOE J. VOLPE, Magistrate Judge.

         This recommended disposition has been submitted to United States District Judge James M. Moody, Jr. The parties may file specific objections to these findings and recommendations and must provide the factual or legal basis for each objection. The objections must be filed with the Clerk no later than fourteen (14) days from the date of the findings and recommendations. A copy must be served on the opposing party. The District Judge, even in the absence of objections, may reject these proposed findings and recommendations in whole or in part.


         Plaintiff, Michael Higgins, has appealed the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration to deny his claim for disability insurance benefits. Both parties have submitted briefs and the case is ready for a decision.

         A court's function on review is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and free of legal error. Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009); Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997); see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Reynolds v. Chater, 82 F.3d 254, 257 (8th Cir. 1996).

         In assessing the substantiality of the evidence, courts must consider evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it; a court may not, however, reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision. Sultan v. Barnhart, 368 F.3d 857, 863 (8th Cir. 2004); Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993). After careful review of the pleadings and evidence in this case, I find the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and recommend the Complaint be DISMISSED.

         Plaintiff was fifty-four years old at the time of the administrative hearing. (Tr. 33) He earned a bachelor of science degree in emergency management. ( Id. ) He has a strong work history and has past relevant work as a security supervisor, security manager, safety manager, human resource and benefits manager, and as a director information management. (Tr. 17-18, 132-33)

         Plaintiff alleges he is disabled due to a back impairment. (Tr. 33) The ALJ[1] found Mr. Higgins had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 24, 2013, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 11) He has a "severe" impairment in the form of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post fusion at L4-5 with chronic low back pain. ( Id. ) The ALJ further found Mr. Higgins did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or equaling an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.[2] (Tr. 13)

         The ALJ determined Mr. Higgins had the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work. ( Id. ) With the aid of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Mr. Higgins could perform his past work. (Doc. No. 17-18) Accordingly, the ALJ determined Mr. Higgins was not disabled. (Tr. 18)

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review of the ALJ's decision, making his decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-3) Plaintiff filed the instant Complaint initiating this appeal. (Doc. No. 1)

         In support of his Complaint, Plaintiff raises several arguments. He believes the ALJ failed to develop the record by not requesting additional information from Plaintiff's surgeon and by not ordering additional consultative examinations to assess his physical limitations. (Doc. No. 7) Plaintiff also argues the ALJ failed to properly consider the evidence, erred with his credibility analysis, failed to give proper weight to his treating doctor, and incorrectly determined he has the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work. ( Id. )

         Plaintiff bears a heavy burden in showing the record has been inadequately developed. He must show both a failure to develop necessary evidence and unfairness or prejudice from that failure. Combs v. Astrue, 243 Fed.Appx. 200, 204 (8th Cir. 2007). Plaintiff has shown neither. The ALJ is permitted to issue a decision without obtaining additional evidence as long as the record is sufficient to make an informed decision. E.g., Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 749 (8th Cir. 2001); Anderson v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 777, 779 (8th Cir. 1995). In this case, while Plaintiff's doctors were in disagreement, the record was sufficient upon which to make an informed decision.

         Disability is the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A). A "physical or mental impairment' is 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The crux of this case is whether the ALJ properly relied on the medical evidence from B. Christopher Myer, M.D., Plaintiff's surgeon, over the report of his treating doctor, Andrew Monfee, M.D. Drs. Myer and Monfee both completed physical residual functional capacity questionnaires. Dr. Monfee concluded that Plaintiff was very limited and, essentially, disabled. (Tr. 227-232) Dr. Myer, however, concluded Plaintiff was capable of performing light work activities. (Tr. 264-69) The ALJ gave some weight to both physicians, but clearly concluded Dr. Myer's opinion was more heavily supported by the evidence of record. The ALJ was specifically referring to Dr. Myer's notes when he stated Plaintiff had reported "walking five miles per day so the limitations on walking are not supported by the record." (Tr. 16, 213) The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff's back surgery appeared to be successful and his prognosis was good. ( Id. ) Dr. Myer's treatment notes reveal he did not believe Mr. Higgins was disabled. However, he reported "Mr. Higgins informed us that he wishes to apply for disability, as he feels he is not able to do much of the therapy that he would like. At the end of the day he feels too tired and sore to go to the gym." (Tr. 212) Dr. Myer encouraged Plaintiff to continue with a walking program but noted, "Mr. Higgins has a strong ...

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