United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division
ORDER REMANDING TO THE COMMISSIONER
T. KEARNEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Elliott filed for social security disability benefits with an
alleged onset date of August 23, 2012. (R. at 115). The
administrative law judge (ALJ) denied his application after a
hearing. (R. at 149). The Appeals Council remanded the case
for further consideration of his mental impairments. (R. at
156-57). The ALJ again denied Elliott's application. (R.
at 47). The Appeals Council declined Elliott's request
for review. (R. at 1). Covington has requested judicial
review, and the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of
the Magistrate Judge.
reasons stated below, this Court reverses and remands the
The Commissioner's Decision
found that Elliott had the severe impairments of degenerative
disk disease of the lumbar spine, epilepsy, bipolar disorder,
major depressive disorder, and borderline intellectual
functioning. (R. at 36). The ALJ found that he had the
residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work,
except that he could not work with ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; could only occasionally perform the remaining
postural functions, specifically climbing ramps and stairs,
balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; could
not work around unprotected heights or hazards in the
workplace; could not do work requiring driving or operating
dangerous machinery; would be limited to simple, routine,
repetitive tasks; could perform unskilled work where
interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed and
supervision is simple, direct, and concrete; and would be
limited to SVP 1 or 2 jobs that can be learned within 30
days. (R. at 36). The ALJ took testimony from a vocational
expert (VE) and determined that this RFC would not allow
Elliott to return to his past relevant work. (R. at 45).
However, the VE testified that the RFC would allow for such
jobs as small product assembler or scale operator. (R. at
46). The ALJ therefore held that Elliott was not disabled.
(R. at 25).
argues that the RFC does not properly account for his mental
impairments because the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion of
a consultative examiner. He also contends that the RFC
exceeds the physical limitations in his medical records. As
the Court holds the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion of the
consultative examiner, it is not necessary to reach his other
review, this Court determines whether substantial evidence on
the record as a whole supports the ALJ's decision.
Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997).
“Substantial evidence” is evidence that a
reasonable mind would find sufficient to support the
ALJ's decision. Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923,
925 (8th Cir. 2009). Reversal is not warranted merely because
substantial evidence exists to support a contrary conclusion.
Long, 108 F.3d at 187.
gave little weight to the opinion of consultative examiner
Jerry Cunningham, Psy.D., stating that the opinion was
“even more limiting tha[n] that of the claimant's
own treating sources and inconsistent with the record as a
whole.” (R. at 45).
are two large problems with the ALJ's analysis. The first
is that Elliott's treating sources did not opine
regarding his capacity to perform in a working environment,
so it is not clear what limitations his treating sources
would have placed on him. The second problem is that the ALJ
does not explain how the opinion is inconsistent with the
record as a whole.
Cunningham opined that Elliott “does not have the
capacity to cope with the typical demands of basic work-like
tasks.” (R. at 956). He specifically noted that
medications, poor social skills, and distortions of reality
would complicate the work environment and that Elliott had an
inadequate attention span and an inability to concentrate.
(R. at 956). Elliott was admitted to Lakeside Behavior Health
System for seven days in June 2013, where he was diagnosed
with severe bipolar disorder with psychosis. (R. at 637). The
Commissioner argues that this does not support a finding of
disability because the stay was short and therefore does not
reach the twelve-month durational requirement. The
Commissioner's argument is misguided. While Elliott was
only treated on an inpatient basis for approximately one
week, there is no indication that his bipolar disorder was
cured in that time. Indeed, the ALJ found his bipolar
disorder a severe impairment, so this argument is without
merit. (R. at 36).
is some evidence that Elliott's condition has improved
with medication. (R. at 810, 820). However, the reported
improvements are not sufficient to show that Elliott can deal
with work-like tasks. The Commissioner also argues that
Elliott's symptoms of hallucinations, delusions, and
difficulty with social interactions were not the result of
objective findings by Dr. Cunningham. Nevertheless, Dr.
Cunningham used his professional judgment and a full battery
of tests to come to his conclusions. (R. at 949- 59). It is
difficult to imagine what other objective tests the
Commissioner expects a psychologist to perform to diagnose
mental impairments. Clearly, there can be no x-ray or
laboratory analysis to determine these symptoms. Dr.
Cunningham saw no evidence of malingering and found the
results of his tests to be valid. (R. at 956). The
Commissioner notes that Elliott interacts with others to
argue that his social interactions are not limited, but all
of the Commissioner's examples merely indicate that
Elliott has visits with family. (R. at 102, 299, 817, 832,
868, 880). All other inconsistencies identified by the
Commissioner are similarly unconvincing. Furthermore, the ALJ
did not identify any of these supposed inconsistencies, and
this Court cannot uphold a decision for reasons not
articulated by an agency where the agency fails to make
necessary factual findings. Banks v. Massanari, 258
F.3d 820, 824 (8th Cir. 2001). The ALJ's decision must
therefore be reversed.
ALJ improperly weighed the consultative
examiner's opinion, and the decision is therefore not
based on substantial evidence on the record as a whole. This
case is therefore remanded to the Commissioner with
instructions to develop the record as necessary and ...