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Nelson v. Social Security Administration

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

June 28, 2018



         I. Introduction:

         On August 22, 2014, Donna R. Nelson applied for supplemental security income benefits, alleging disability beginning on October 8, 2013. (Tr. at 45) Ms. Nelson's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Ms. Nelson's application. (Tr. at 55) She 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. Nelson 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:

         Ms. Nelson's last-insured date was December 31, 2014, so the relevant time period for determination of disability ends on that date. (Tr. at 47) The ALJ found that Ms. Nelson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of October 8, 2013 through December 31, 2014. Id.

         At step two of the five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Nelson had the following severe impairments: history of toe surgery in March of 2015, history of seizures/epilepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, status post-surgery for intracranial aneurysms, status post-surgery for degenerative joint disease of the foot, obesity, and depression with anxiety. Id.

         After finding that Ms. Nelson's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment (Tr. at 48), the ALJ determined that Ms. Nelson had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of work at the light exertional level, with some limitations. She could perform unskilled, rote work activities. (Tr. at 50). She could understand, remember, and follow concrete instructions, and could deal with supervision, co-workers, and the public. Id.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Nelson was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 53) At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) to find, based on Ms. Nelson's age, education, work experience and RFC, that she was capable of performing work in the national economy as housekeeper/cleaner and mail clerk. (Tr. at 55) The ALJ determined, therefore, that Ms. Nelson was not disabled during the relevant time-period, that is, October 8, 2013 through December 31, 2014. Id.

         III. Discussion:

         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 the 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).

         A. Ms. Nelson's Arguments on Appeal

         In this appeal, Ms. Nelson, appearing pro se, contends that the ALJ's decision to deny benefits is not supported by substantial evidence. She argues that the ALJ erred by not giving more weight to the opinions of Dan Johnson, Ph.D., Randall Carlton, M.D., and Chris Rowlett, D.P.M. She also alleges ineffective assistance of counsel by her former attorney, David Throesch.[2]

         Ms. Nelson suffered a brain aneurysm in 2012, and had surgery to place three clips at the site on October 8, 2013. (Tr. at 310, 350) On November 25, 2013, she was doing well, and a CT scan revealed no residual recurrent aneurysm and no hemorrhage. (Tr. at 353-354) Improvement in condition supports an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled. See Lochner v. Sullivan, 968, F.2d 725, 728 (8th Cir. 1992) A brain CT scan in March 2014 was also normal. (Tr. at 357) At a visit to Arkansas Neuroscience Institute on September 8, 2014, Ms. Nelson complained of headaches, but a brain CT scan showed no evidence of aneurysm recurrence, and the doctor recommended follow-up in “a couple of years.” (Tr. at 359) The need for only conservative treatment contradicts allegations of disabling pain. Smith v. Shalala, 987 F.2d 1371, 1374 (8th Cir. 1993).

         While Ms. Nelson complained of neurological dysfunction due to headaches, seizures, and symptoms from the aneurysm, clinical neurological examinations were normal on September 9, 2013, March 20, 2014, April 23, 2014, July 24, 2014, August 12, 2014, August 18, 2014, August 22, 2014, March 3, 2015, April 20, 2015, August 10, 2015, and December 10, 2015. (Tr. at 362-364, 367, 381, 475, 725, 728, 800, 843, 907, 1014) Normal examination findings are not indicative of a disabling condition. Gowell v. Apfel, 242 F.3d 793, 796 (8th Cir. 2001). Likewise, EEG and nerve conduction studies were normal in July of 2014. (Tr. at 377-378)

         Victor Briton, M.D., filled out seizure medical-source statements on October 1, 2014 and November 19, 2014. (Tr. at 464, 492). He noted that an EEG in September of 2014 was mildly abnormal but showed no epileptiform activity. (Tr. at 463) Dr. Briton did not indicate the frequency of seizures or how many Ms. Nelson had experienced. Id. Ms. Nelson herself testified at the hearing that she could not tell whether she was having seizures and that she had been ...

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