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Stone v. Berryhill

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

December 12, 2017



         I. Introduction:

         Plaintiff, Roger Stone, applied for disability benefits on July 11, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of March 30, 2013. (Tr. at 18). After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (AALJ) denied his application. (Tr. at 26). The Appeals Council denied his request for review. (Tr. at 1). The ALJ's decision now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, and Stone has requested judicial review.

         For the reasons stated below, the Court[1] affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         The ALJ found that Stone had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of March 30, 2013. (Tr. at 20). The ALJ found, at Step Two of the sequential five-step analysis, that Stone had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, essential hypertension, congestive heart failure, and status post right knee surgery. Id.

         At Step Three, the ALJ determined that Stone's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. (Tr. at 21). Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined that Stone had the residual functional capacity (ARFC@) to perform medium work, except that he could only occasionally crouch and kneel. Id. The ALJ next determined that Stone is capable of performing past relevant work. (Tr. at 25). In the alternative, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert ("VE") to find that, based on Stone's age, education, work experience and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform. Id. Based on that determination, the ALJ held that Stone was not disabled. (Tr. at 26).

         III. Discussion:

         A. Standard of Review

         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 less than a preponderance but more than a scintilla. Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009). In other words, it is “enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the ALJ's decision.” Id. (citation omitted). The Court must consider not only evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision, but also evidence that supports a contrary outcome. The Court cannot reverse the decision, however, “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)).

         B. Stone's Arguments on Appeal

         Stone argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision to deny benefits. He contends that the assigned RFC did not reflect all of Stone's limitations and that the ALJ did not conduct a proper credibility analysis. For the following reasons, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.

         While Stone had multiple severe impairments, he focused his argument on limitations arising from congestive heart failure and hypertension, so the Court will likewise limit its discussion.[2] Stone underwent cardiac catheterization in 2011, prior to the relevant time-period for disability determination. (Tr. at 273-274). He was stable after surgery and his doctor released him to return to usual work duties, performing heavy work as a tire technician. (Tr. at 200, 274). There is no record of Stone pursuing treatment for heart conditions again until November 4, 2014, when he complained of heart palpitations. (Tr. at 24, 382-384). Failure to treat a condition undermines a claim of disability. Smith v. Shalala, 987 F.2d 1371, 1374 (8th Cir. 1993)(when a claimant has not treated his anxiety, the ALJ is justified in ruling out anxiety as an impairment); Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 967 (8th Cir. 2003)(failure to seek regular and available medical treatment undermines claim of disabling pain). At that appointment, Stone did not complain of chest pain and had a normal heart rate, rhythm, and heart sounds. (Tr. at 382). His doctor added Coreg to treat hypertension. (Tr. at 383).

         On January 6, 2015, Stone presented with complications from hypertension, but again, his cardiovascular office exam was normal and the doctor also noted that Stone was not compliant with an exercise regimen. (Tr. at 445). A claimant's non-compliance with treatment is a legitimate consideration in evaluating the validity of his alleged disability. See Holley v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1088, 1092 (8th Cir. 2001). At that time, Stone's heart condition was “stable.” (Tr. at 447). And in September 2015, a stress echocardiogram was normal. (Tr. at 481). Objective tests showing mild to moderate conditions do not support a finding of disability. Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 738-39 (8th Cir. 2004). By November 2015, Stone reported that his hypertension was “doing well.” (Tr. at 484).

         Two state agency medical consultants reviewed the record and found Stone's impairments to be ...

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