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Pitts v. Berryhill

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

February 13, 2017

TERESA D. PITTS PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration[1] DEFENDANT

          MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          HONORABLE MARK E. FORD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Teresa D. Pitts, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”). 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 her application for DIB on February 22, 2013, alleging an onset date of February 9, 2013, due to back problems, shoulder pain and numbness, fibromyalgia, diverticulosis, migraines, vision problems, memory problems, episodes of passing out and problems with concentration. (T. 60) Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through December 31, 2017. (T. 12) The Commissioner denied her application initially and on reconsideration. (T. 83, 90) At Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Hon. Edward M. Starr, held an administrative hearing on February 27, 2014. (T. 25-58) Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.

         On July 22, 2014, ALJ Starr issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (T. 10-19) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not performed substantial gainful activity since her February 9, 2013, alleged onset date. (T. 12) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of headaches and fibromyalgia. (T. 12) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments restricted her to sedentary work with a requirement that she avoid hazards, including unprotected heights and heavy moving machinery. (T. 14) The ALJ held that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, and did not make a finding of transferable skills. (T. 17-18)

         The vocational expert (“VE”) identified examples of unskilled (SVP 2) sedentary work that an individual with the same age, education, vocational profile, and the specified functional limitations could perform. (T. 18, 54-55) The ALJ considered the VE's testimony and determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (T. 19) Accordingly, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's February 22, 2013, application at step five of the sequential evaluation process. (T. 19) On July 6, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, which rendered it the final administrative decision of the Commissioner. (T. 1-5) On September 2, 2015, Plaintiff timely filed this action seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. (ECF No. 1) This matter is before the undersigned for Report and Recommendation. Both parties have filed briefs, and the case is ready for decision. (ECF Nos. 9 & 13)

         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). The Court 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, the Court 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. Discussion:

         The Court must determine whether substantial evidence, taking the record as a whole, supports the Commissioner's decision that Plaintiff had not been disabled from the AOD on February 9, 2013, through the date of his decision on July 22, 2014. Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal, which can be summarized as: (A) the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record; (B) the ALJ erred in assessing the credibility of Plaintiff's subjective complaints; and, (C) the ALJ erred in his RFC determination. (ECF No. 9, pp. 8-17)

         The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and the ALJ's opinion, and they are repeated here only to the extent necessary.

         Duty to Fully and Fairly ...


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