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Gray v. Berryhill

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

January 29, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, DEFENDANT


         Plaintiff Ricky D. Gray has appealed the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his claims for disability benefits and supplemental security income. Both parties have submitted appeal briefs, and the case is ready for decision.[1]

         I. Background:

         Mr. Gray alleges that he became limited in his ability to work due to breathing problems, right elbow pain, and hearing loss. (SSA record at 102, 273) After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge[2] ("ALJ") concluded that Mr. Gray had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act") at any time from March 10, 2014, through January 7, 2016, the date of the decision.[3] (Id. at 52) The Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-5) Mr. Gray then filed his complaint initiating this appeal. (Docket entry #2)

         Mr. Gray was 55 years old at the time of the hearing and lived with his wife and nine-year-old granddaughter. (SSA record at 63, 69) Mr. Gray had a ninth grade education and past work as dump-truck driver and construction laborer. (Id. at 51)

         II. The ALJ's Decision:

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Gray had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 10, 2014, and that his affective disorder and substance abuse disorder were severe impairments; but, he did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met a listing. (Id. at 41-42) He further found that Mr. Gray's allegations regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not entirely credible. (Id. at 50)

         Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that, during the relevant time period, Mr. Gray retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for unskilled work at all exertional levels. He could perform work where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed; tasks should be no more complex than those learned and performed by rote, with few variables and require little judgment; and any supervision required is limited to simple, direct, and concrete. (Id. at 44-45)

         III. Discussion:

         The Court's function on review is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and free of legal error. Papesh v. Colvin, 786 F.3d 1126, 1131 (8th Cir. 2015); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Phillips v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 699, 702 (8th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence on the record as a whole requires a court to take into account record evidence that fairly detracts from the ALJ's decision. Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). Reversal is not warranted, however, “merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.” Id.

         Mr. Gray complains that the ALJ erred in failing to find his neck pain and hearing loss to be severe impairments. (#11 at 6-9) The Commissioner responds that, because the evidence did not demonstrate that either condition significantly limited Mr. Gray's ability to perform the basic, physical demands of work, the ALJ properly concluded that these impairments were not severe. (#12 at 4-5)

         The claimant has the burden of proving that an impairment is severe, which, by definition, causes more than a minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to do basic work activities. Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 404.922(a). If the impairment would have no more than a minimal effect on the claimant's ability to do work, then it is not considered a severe impairment. Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007).

         Mr. Gray argues that neck pain is one of his “primary impairments.” He did not specify neck pain as a physical condition that limited his ability to work, however, at the time he applied for benefits; or when he completed his function reports and pain questionnaires. (SSA record at 273, 292, 301, 307, 311, 319, 361, 412)

         As the ALJ notes, Anandaraj Subramanium, M.D., who performed a consultative examination of Mr. Gray's physical limitations, observed that Mr. Gray's range of motion was either normal or that his limitations were unremarkable: his straight leg raise test was negative; his gait was normal; and he could ambulate without assistance. Dr. Subramanium observed no muscle weakness or atrophy, and no muscle sensory abnormalities. (Id. at 412-16)

         In May and June, 2015, Mr. Gray was treated by Stacy Armstrong, D.O. Mr. Gray reported neck and back pain; and on examination he had a “slight tenderness” in his cervical spine. (Id. at 442-47) She recommended physical therapy. (Id.) The record indicates that Dr. Armstrong only treated Mr. Gray on ...

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