United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Northern Division
ANGELA C. SPAHN PLAINTIFF
NANCY A. BERRYHILL DEFENDANT
RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION INSTRUCTIONS
following Recommended Disposition
(“Recommendation”) has been sent to Judge Kristine
Baker. Either party may file written objections to all or
part of this Recommendation. Objections should specifically
explain the factual or legal basis for the objection. To be
considered, all objections must be filed within 14 days of
this Recommendation. By not objecting, parties may waive the
right to appeal questions of fact.
FOR RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION
Spahn applied for social security disability benefits with an
alleged onset date of April 30, 2014. (R. at 90). After a
hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) denied Ms.
Spahn's applications. (R. at 40). The Appeals Council
denied her request for review (R. at 1); thus, the ALJ's
decision now stands as the Commissioner's final decision.
Ms. Spahn filed this case requesting judicial review.
The Commissioner's Decision
found that Ms. Spahn had the following severe impairments:
history of seizures, degenerative disk disease of the
cervical spine, osteoarthritis, bipolar type I disorder,
major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder,
posttraumatic stress disorder, alcohol use disorder, and
cannabis use disorder. (R. at 20). The ALJ found that Ms.
Spahn had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform
light work, except that she could not perform work from
unprotected heights, ropes, ladders, or scaffolding; could
not operate motor vehicles or use firearms; and could not
perform tasks requiring bi-focal vision. She was further
limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with simple,
direct, and concrete supervision. She could maintain frequent
contact with coworkers and supervisors, but only occasional
contact with the general public. She would need three
unscheduled absences per month on a consistent basis. (R. at
20). This RFC precluded Ms. Spahn's past relevant work.
(R. at 23).
took testimony from a vocational expert (VE), who testified
that a person with Ms. Spahn's age, education, work
experience, and RFC could not perform any jobs existing in
significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 23-24).
found that Ms. Spahn would have severe impairments even if
she stopped abusing alcohol and cannabis (R. at 24) and that
she would still be unable to perform her past relevant work.
(R. at 39) The VE testified, however, that a hypothetical
individual with the same age, education, work experience, and
RFC as Ms. Spahn, minus her substance abuse, would be able to
perform other jobs such as hotel housekeeper, price tag
ticketer, and routing clerk. (R. at 39-41). Based on this
testimony, the ALJ held that Ms. Spahn's substance abuse
was a contributing factor material to the determination of
disability and that she was, therefore, not disabled within
the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 40).
Spahn argues that the ALJ erred in finding that substance
abuse was a contributing factor to her disability; that the
ALJ failed to account in the RFC for moderate limitations in
concentration, persistence, or pace found at step three; and
that the ALJ did not include appropriate vision limitations
in the RFC. Because the ALJ did not include relevant visual
limitations in the RFC, it is not necessary to reach Ms.
Spahn's other points.
task of the Court is to determine 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 performing this analysis, the Court must look to
evidence supporting the Commissioner's findings, and
also, to evidence that detracts from the decision. Milam
v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015).
Spahn is functionally blind in her left eye. (R. at 485-87,
620). The ALJ acknowledged this impairment and attempted to
account for it in the RFC. (R. at 36-37). However, the ALJ
mistakenly described Ms. Spahn's visual impairment in the
hypothetical question posed to the VE and in assigning the
A hypothetical question must precisely describe a
claimant's impairments so that the vocational expert may
accurately assess whether jobs exist for the claimant.
Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir.1994). A
vocational expert cannot be assumed to remember all of a
claimant's impairments from the record. Whitmore v.
Bowen, 785 F.2d 262, 263-64 (8th Cir.1986). An
expert's testimony based upon an insufficient
hypothetical question may not constitute substantial evidence
to support a finding of no disability. Id.
Newton v. Chater, 92 F.3d 688, 694-95 (8th Cir.
Spahn observes, the ALJ limited her to jobs that do not
require “bi-focal” vision. (R. at 25, 37). The
ALJ used the term “bifocal vision” in describing
Ms. Spahn's limitations to the VE. (R. at 86). Ms. Spahn
argues that limiting her to jobs not requiring
“bi-focal” vision is inaccurate because
“bi-focal vision” refers to the ability to see
clearly at both near or far distances. A person without
bi-focal vision can see near objects clearly and distant
objects clearly. Indeed, the dictionary ...