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Ward v. Commissionr, Social Security Administration

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

March 19, 2018

CHRIS G. WARD, PLAINTIFF
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, DEFENDANT

          RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

         I. Instructions

         The following Recommended Disposition (“Recommendation”) has been sent to Chief Judge Brian S. Miller. Any party may file written objections to all or part of this Recommendation. Objections must set out the factual or legal basis for the objection. To be considered all objections must be received by the Clerk of Court within 14 days of this Recommendation. By not objecting, parties may waive the right to appeal questions of fact.

         II. Background

         Chris Ward applied for social security disability benefits alleging an onset date of March 1, 2012. (R. at 101). After a hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) issued a decision denying Mr. Ward's application. (R. at 33). The Appeals Council then denied his request for review. (R. at 1). The ALJ's decision now stands as the Commissioner's final decision. Mr. Ward filed this lawsuit requesting judicial review.

         III. The Commissioner's Decision

         The ALJ found that Mr. Ward had the following severe impairments: anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, intermittent explosive anger disorder, hypertension, Raynaud's disease, and degenerative disk disease of the cervical and lumbar regions. (R. at 21). After considering all of Mr. Ward's impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Ward had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, except that he could only lift and carry twenty pounds frequently and ten pounds occasionally; could sit for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; could stand or walk a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; could only occasionally stoop, crouch, bend, kneel, crawl, and balance; could never use ropes, ladders, or scaffolding; and work would be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive task where supervision is simple, direct, and concrete. He could maintain frequent contact with coworkers and supervisors but only occasional contact with the general public. (R. at 23). The RFC the ALJ determined would not allow Mr. Ward to return to any past relevant work. (R. at 31).

         The ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert (VE), who testified that a person of Mr. Ward's age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform jobs such as price tagger and office helper (R. 32). The ALJ found, therefore, that Mr. Ward was not disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act. (R. at 32-33).

         IV. Discussion

         Mr. Ward argues that the mental RFC is not supported by substantial evidence; that the physical RFC is not supported by substantial evidence; and that the ALJ failed to meet the step-five burden of demonstrating that jobs were available. Because the mental RFC is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, it is not necessary to reach Mr. Ward's other points.

         The Court is tasked with determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings. 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) (citation omitted). In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the Court must consider all evidence in the record, both evidence supporting the Commissioner's decision and also evidence that detracts from the decision. Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015). The Court cannot reverse the Commissioner's decision, however, merely because sufficient evidence also supports a contrary outcome.

         The ALJ gave “some weight” to the opinion of consultative examiner Samuel Hester, Ph.D., P.A., but discounted Dr. Hester's opinion because he “appears to rely heavily on the claimant's subjective reports.” (R. at 30). Dr. Hester determined that Mr. Ward had a limited capacity to communicate and interact in a socially adequate manner. Even though Mr. Ward could cope with the mental demands of basic work, Dr. Hester opined that, after a brief period, Mr. Ward would likely have an explosive episode and be terminated. Dr. Hester further opined that Mr. Ward might not be able to complete work tasks within an acceptable timeframe due to pain. (R. at 352).

         Because Dr. Hester is a psychologist rather than a psychiatrist, his evaluation necessarily relied on Mr. Ward's statements. Even so, Dr. Hester stated that he had considered signs of symptom exaggeration and malingering in making his determination of Mr. Ward's mental state. (R. at 353). Nothing in the record calls into question Dr. Hester's professional judgment in evaluating Mr. Ward. The ALJ did not provide sufficient reasons for discrediting Dr. Hester's opinion.

         Additionally, the ALJ summarily rejected the opinion of Kim Johnson, L.P.C., Mr. Ward's counselor, because “despite her lengthy treatment history with the claimant, she is not an acceptable medical source for Social Security purposes.” (R. at 30). In rejecting Ms. Johnson's opinions, the ALJ cited SSR 06-03p. The ALJ's interpretation of that ruling, however, was too narrow.

         SSR 06-03p requires an ALJ to give consideration to “other sources” rather than dismissing those opinions in such a cursory manner. In fact, the ruling provides that the opinions of non-acceptable medical sources at times may ...


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