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Cole v. Colvin

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

August 1, 2016

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


          J. THOMAS RAY United States Magistrate Judge

         Robert Cole (“Cole”) applied for social security disability benefits with an alleged onset date of March 15, 2012. (R. at 166). After a hearing, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied Cole’s applications. (R. at 30). The Appeals Council denied review, rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. at 1). Cole has requested judicial review.

         For the reasons stated below, this Court[1] reverses and remands the Commissioner’s decision.

         I. The Commissioner’s Decision

         The ALJ found that Cole had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; cervical fracture versus motion artifact; headaches; obesity; gastroesophageal reflux disease; osteoarthritis; anxiety disorder; and depressive disorder. (R. at 122). Based on those impairments, the ALJ found that Cole had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following restrictions: he must sit and stand at will throughout the day; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; cannot work around hazards; can frequently reach overhead; can only have occasional changes to the workplace; is limited to tasks that have a complexity of one or two steps and are learned and performed by rote with few variables and little judgment; requires supervision that is simple, direct, and concrete; and can perform simple jobs that can be learned within thirty days. (R. at 124).

         Relying on the testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Cole could not perform any of his past relevant work but could perform other jobs such as office helper or cashier. (R. at 129-30). Thus, the ALJ held that Cole was not disabled at step 5 of the five-step evaluative process.

         II. Discussion

         Cole asserts that the ALJ erred in finding that his testimony was not fully credible. He also maintains that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record and should have included manipulative limitations based on a lack of feeling in Cole’s hands.

         This Court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to ensure that it is not based on legal error and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997). “Substantial evidence in the record as a whole” has been defined to mean “less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the ALJ’s decision.” Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009). Even if two inconsistent conclusions can be drawn from the evidence, the Court must affirm if one of those conclusions is consistent with the ALJ’s findings. Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015).

         A. The ALJ’s Credibility Determination

         The ALJ found that Cole had severe impairments but that his statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely credible. (R. at 126). Cole maintains that the ALJ improperly discounted his subjective complaints of pain by only considering whether those complaints were supported by objective medical evidence.

         “[T]he ALJ may disbelieve subjective complaints if there are inconsistencies in the evidence as a whole.” Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 792 (8th Cir. 2005). When making determinations regarding the credibility of a claimant's subjective allegations of pain, the ALJ must examine: (1) the claimant's daily activities; (2) the duration and intensity of the pain; (3) the precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; and (5) functional restrictions. Miller v. Sullivan, 953 F.2d 417, 420 (8th Cir. 1992) (citing Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (1984)). The ALJ may not discount subjective complaints simply because they lack support in the medical record. Id. “When rejecting a claimant's complaints of pain, the ALJ must make an express credibility determination, must detail reasons for discrediting the testimony, must set forth the inconsistencies, and must discuss the Polaski factors.” Baker v. Apfel, 159 F.3d 1140, 1144 (8th Cir. 1998). This Court will defer to the ALJ’s credibility determination if it is supported by good reasons and substantial evidence. Turpin v. Colvin, 750 F.3d 989, 993 (8th Cir. 2014). However, the Eighth Circuit has “cautioned … that an ALJ may not circumvent the rule that objective evidence is not needed to support subjective complaints of pain under the guise of a credibility finding.” Penn v. Sullivan, 896 F.2d 313, 316 (8th Cir. 1990).

         When discussing Cole’s credibility, the ALJ simply states that his statements “are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision.” (R. at 126). The discussion that follows concerns Cole’s physical RFC, and it discusses only medical records. (R. at 126-27). The ALJ “notes the claimant’s subjective complaints of pain are out of proportion to the objective medical evidence.” (R. at 127). The Commissioner maintains that the ALJ considered all of the Polaski factors, but the ALJ identifies no inconsistencies between Cole’s complaints and any other part of the record. The decision contains no explanation for the finding that Cole was not credible aside from stating that objective medical evidence does not support Cole’s subjective complaints of pain.

         Cole’s physicians do not suggest that he is a malingerer, nor is there any indication in the record that he is exaggerating his symptoms. Cole reported limited activities of daily living. (R. at 264-71). A sister cleans his house, and Cole uses a scooter when shopping and a shower chair when bathing. (R. at 125). He avoids driving because some of his medications have caused seizures in the past. (R. at 141). The ALJ pointed to no evidence inconsistent with these statements. Cole’s mother provided a Third Party Function Report that is consistent with Cole’s statements. (R. at 281-90). The ALJ did not give any significant consideration or weight to this statement, citing to SSR 06-03P in support of the lack of consideration. However, SSR 06-03P states that “we consider all relevant evidence in the case record when we make a determination or decision about whether the individual is ...

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