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Stanfel v. Social Security Administration

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

April 30, 2018



         I. Introduction:

         On November 12, 2014, Dana Stanfel applied for supplemental security income benefits, alleging disability beginning on November 29, 2006. (Tr. at 15) Ms. Stanfel's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. After conducting a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Ms. Stanfel's application. (Tr. at 27) Ms. Stanfel requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, but that request was denied. (Tr. at 1) Therefore, the ALJ's decision now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Stanfel filed this case seeking judicial review of the decision denying her benefits. For the reasons stated below, the Court[1] affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         The ALJ found that Ms. Stanfel had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date of November 12, 2014. (Tr. at 17) At step two of the five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Stanfel had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellitus, obesity, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder. Id.

         After finding that Ms. Stanfel's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment (Tr. at 18), the ALJ determined that Ms. Stanfel had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of work at the light exertional level, with some limitations. She could only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and she could only perform simple, routine tasks with incidental interpersonal contact with the public and coworkers. (Tr. at 20).

         The ALJ found that Ms. Stanfel had no past relevant work. (Tr. at 26). At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) to find that, based on Ms. Stanfel's age, education, work experience and RFC, she was capable of performing work in the national economy as merchandise marker and routing clerk. (Tr. at 27). The ALJ determined, therefore, that Ms. Stanfel was not disabled. Id.

         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 “enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support he ALJ's decision.” Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009)(citation omitted). In making this determination, 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) (citation omitted).

         B. Ms. Stanfel's Arguments on Appeal

         In this appeal, Ms. Stanfel contends that the ALJ's decision to deny benefits is not supported by substantial evidence. She argues that the RFC did not fully incorporate all of her limitations, specifically those set forth by her treating physician, Kristi Statler, M.D.

         Objective testing did not show disabling medical conditions. An MRI of Ms. Stanfel's lumbar spine in January of 2006 was normal. (Tr. at 283-284) At the same time, an x-ray of her lumbar spine showed no bony abnormalities. (Tr. at 277-279) A brain MRI from March 2008 was within normal limits. (Tr. at 303-304) A head MRI in 2014 was also normal. (Tr. at 391-393) MRIs of Ms. Stanfel's lumbar and cervical spine in March of 2015 were normal. Normal examination findings argue against a finding of disabling pain. Gowell v. Apfel, 242 F.3d 793, 796 (8th Cir. 2001).

         When John Hines, M.D., examined Ms. Stanfel for pain symptoms in 2005, he noted that her pain response was exaggerated, and he questioned the authenticity of pain. (Tr. at 275-276) After a 2006 examination, Stephen Golden, M.D., also noted that Ms. Stanfel might be malingering. (Tr. at 280-282) Evidence of malingering supports an ALJ's decision to discount a claimant's complaints. Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844 (8th Cir. 2009).

         Ms. Stanfel reported improvement thanks to medication. Topamax reportedly helping with migraines in March of 2006. (Tr. at 288-290) Lexapro helped in March of 2008. (Tr. at 306-307) Migraine and anxiety medications apparently worked well in December of 2011. (Tr. at 330-332) Abilify and Celexa reportedly helped in February of 2012. (Tr. at 468-470) Ms. Stanfel's blood-sugar levels were controlled in 2013, 2014, and 2015. (Tr. at 425-426, 413-415, 673-675) Her reported pain was manageable with medication as of April, 2016. (Tr. at 735-738) Impairments ...

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