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Parker v. Berryhill

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

June 21, 2017

BAILY PARKER, on behalf of Sherry Parker PLAINTIFF
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT


         I. Introduction:

         Plaintiff Sherry Parker applied for disability benefits on October 10, 2013, and for supplemental security income on October 11, 2013. (Tr. at 11) She alleged that she became disabled on July 13, 2013. Id. Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. Ms. Parker filed a request for hearing on May 21, 2014. Id. Unfortunately, Ms. Parker died in a car accident on November 3, 2014. Id. Her children were substituted as the real parties of interest. After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied the application. (Tr. at 21) The Appeals Council denied the request for review, so the ALJ's decision now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Parker's heirs have requested judicial review.

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         The ALJ found that Ms. Parker had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of July 13, 2013. (Tr. at 13) At Step Two of the five-step process, the ALJ found that, during the relevant time, Ms. Parker had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc and joint disease affecting the cervical spine that required a C5-6 fusion in the remote past, osteoarthritis, evidence to support congestive heart failure, an organic mental disorder, an affective disorder, and an anxiety disorder. (Tr. at 14) Ms. Parker's essential hypertension and obesity were severe when considered in combinations with her other physical impairments. Id.

         After finding that Ms. Parker's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment (Tr. at 14), the ALJ determined that Ms. Parker had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work at the unskilled level with additional limitations. She could understand, remember, and carry out only simple work-related tasks and make simple work-related decisions; perform tasks learned by rote; perform jobs requiring little judgment and few changes in the work place, where interpersonal contacts are incidental; and perform jobs where requiring simple, direct, and concrete supervision. (Tr. at 15)

         The ALJ found that Ms. Parker was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. at 19) At Step Five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) to find that, based on Ms. Parker's age, education, work experience and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform at the light level. (Tr. at 21) Based on that Step Five determination, the ALJ held that Ms. Parker was not disabled. Id.

         III. Discussion:

         The Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). “Substantial evidence” in this context means, “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). The Court must consider not only evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision, but also, evidence that supports a contrary outcome, but cannot reverse the decision, “merely because substantial evidence exists for the opposite decision.” Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997) (quoting Johnson v. Chater, 87 F.3d 1015, 1017 (8th Cir. 1996)).

         A. Arguments on Appeal

         Plaintiff argues that the RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ's question to the VE failed to account for Ms. Parker's obesity. Plaintiff further avers that the VE identified a job that fell outside the limitations included in the hypothetical posed to the VE.

         A claimant's RFC represents the most he or she can do despite the combined effects of all of limitations that are supported by the evidence. The ALJ must consider all credible evidence. McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 614 (8th Cir. 2011). In determining a claimant's RFC, the ALJ has a duty to establish, by competent medical evidence, the physical and mental activity that the claimant could perform in a work setting. The ALJ must give appropriate consideration to all of a claimant's impairments, both severe and non-severe. Ostronski v. Chater, 94 F.3d 413, 418 (8th Cir. 1996). Here, the Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC finding did not account for moderate difficulty with standing, walking, lifting, and carrying found by Roger Troxel, M.D., in his consultative examination report.

         While Dr. Troxel did observe some functional limitations, he also found negative straight-leg raise; no muscle spasm, muscle weakness, or muscle atrophy; and normal gait and coordination. (Tr. at 534-538) He observed decreased range-of-motion in the shoulder, hip, and cervical and lumbar spine. Id. But, he found normal range-of-motion in Ms. Parker's elbows, wrists, hands, knees, and ankles. Id. Dr. Troxel found no significantly decreased ability to sit, handle, finger, see, or speak. Id.

         The medical records include no treating-physician opinions relating to Ms. Parker's ability to walk, lift, or carry. Likewise, there is no objective medical testing on her back and neck that would support a more limited RFC than found by the ALJ. Plaintiff bore the burden of proving disability through the first four steps of the evaluative process. Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009). A claimant “has the responsibility for presenting the strongest case possible.” Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 260 (8th Cir. 1991).

         The ALJ relied on Dr. Troxel's opinion of Ms. Parker's physical functionality because the claimant did not provide contrary medical evidence. Dr. Troxel's clinical testing revealed only moderate limitations. Objective tests showing mild-to-moderate conditions do not support a ...

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