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Morse v. Berryhill

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

June 6, 2017

CHARLES D. MORSE PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Charles D. Morse, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under the provision of Title II of the Social Security Act (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 protectively filed his current application for DIB on September 4, 2013, alleging an inability to work since July 29, 2012, due to diabetes, scoliosis of spine, high blood pressure, and neuropathy of feet. (Doc. 11, pp. 68-69). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured status through December 31, 2017. (Doc. 11, p. 203). An administrative hearing was held on July 8, 2014, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Doc. 11, pp. 44-67).

         By written decision dated December 24, 2014, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and obesity. (Doc. 11, p. 32). However, after reviewing all of the evidence presented, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Doc. 11, pp. 34-35). The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(c), except that Plaintiff could only frequently climb, balance, crawl, kneel, stoop, and crouch. (Doc. 11, pp. 35-39). With the help of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as an appliance assembler as it is actually and generally performed. (Doc. 11, p. 39).

         Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on April 4, 2016. (Doc. 11, pp. 5-8, 26). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 6). Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 12, 13).

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

         II. Applicable Law:

         This Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). 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. The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). 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. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). 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 decision of the ALJ must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000).

         It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of proving his disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and that prevents him 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), 1382c (a)(3)(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 his disability, not simply his 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 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 age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982), abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         III. Discussion:

         Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record; 2) the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's shoulder and leg pain were not severe impairments; 3) the ALJ erred in his RFC determination; and 4) the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work. (Doc. 11).[2]

         A. Full and Fair Development of the Record:

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to fully develop the record by failing to order a consultative orthopedic examination along with a medical source statement outlining Plaintiff's specific physical limitations as requested by Plaintiff's counsel. (Doc. 12, p. 3). The ALJ has a duty to fully and fairly develop the record. See Frankl v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 935, 938 (8th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's duty to fully and fairly develop the record is independent of Plaintiff's burden to press his case. Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1016 (8th Cir. 2010). The ALJ, however, is not required to function as Plaintiff's substitute counsel, but only to develop a reasonably complete record. “Reversal due to failure to develop the record is only warranted where such failure is unfair or prejudicial.” Shannon v. Chater, 54 F.3d 484, 488 (8th Cir. 1995). “While an ALJ does have a duty to develop the record, this duty is not never-ending and an ALJ is not required to disprove every possible impairment.” McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 612 (8th Cir. 2011).

         In this case, the record consists of case analyses and psychiatric review techniques completed by non-examining medical consultants, a General Physical Examination form completed by an examining physician, and Plaintiff's medical records, which included clinic notes from treating physicians and imaging results. After reviewing the entire record, the Court finds the record before the ALJ contained the evidence required to make a full and informed decision regarding ...


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