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Hart v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Pine Bluff Division

March 28, 2019



         This Recommended Disposition (“Recommendation”) has been sent to Judge James M. Moody Jr. Any party may file written objections to this Recommendation. Objections should be specific and should include the factual or legal basis for the objection.

         To be considered, objections must be received in the office of the Court Clerk within 14 days of this Recommendation. If no objections are filed, Judge Moody can adopt this Recommendation without independently reviewing the record. By not objecting, parties may also waive any right to appeal questions of fact.

         I. Introduction:

         On May 4, 2015, Jennifer Hart applied for disability benefits, alleging disability beginning April 22, 2015. (Tr. at 16) Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) also denied her application. (Tr. at 30) Ms. Hart 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 Commissioner's final decision. Ms. Hart filed this case seeking judicial review of the decision denying her benefits.

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         At the time of the hearing, Ms. Hart measured 5'5” and weighed 301 pounds. (Tr. at 63) The ALJ found that Ms. Hart had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of April 22, 2015. (Tr. at 18) At step two of the five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Hart had the following severe impairments: multiple sclerosis, degenerative disc disease, affective disorders, anxiety disorders, and obesity. Id.

         After finding that Ms. Hart's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment (Tr. at 19), the ALJ determined that Ms. Hart had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of work at the sedentary level with some additional limitations. (Tr. at 21) She could only frequently reach, handle, finger, and feel. Id. She could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs and balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Id. She could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Id. She must avoid unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, extreme heat and cold, and pulmonary irritants. Id. She must be able to use a cane to ambulate to and from her workstation. Id. Mentally, she could perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks and make simple work-related decisions. Id. She could work where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed and where supervision is simple, direct, and concrete. Id.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Hart was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 28) At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert ("VE") to find, based on Ms. Hart's age, education, work experience and RFC, that she was capable of performing work in the national economy as document preparer and call-out phone clerk. (Tr. at 29) Based on that determination, the ALJ held that Ms. Hart was not disabled. Id.

         III. Discussion:

         A. Standard of Review

         In this appeal, the Court must review the Commissioner's decision for legal error and assure that the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Brown v. Colvin, 825 F.3d 936, 939 (8th Cir. 2016) (citing Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010)). Stated another way, the decision must rest on enough evidence that “a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support [the] conclusion.” Halverson, 600 F.3d at 929. The Court will not reverse the decision, however, solely because there is evidence to support a conclusion different from that reached by the Commissioner. Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 578 (8th Cir. 2006).

         B. Ms. Hart's Arguments on Appeal

         Ms. Hart contends that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits lacks substantial supporting evidence. She argues that the ALJ failed to resolve an apparent conflict between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) and that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Dr. Roger Troxel, M.D. She further argues that she suffers from moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, and pace, and that the ALJ did not account for these deficiencies in the RFC. Finally, she contends that the RFC for light work exceeds her abilities.[1]

         Ms. Hart suffered from back and neck pain arising from degenerative disc disease. A May 2015 thoracic MRI showed multilevel disc degeneration. (Tr. at 388) But, a February 2014 lumbar MRI was normal. (Tr. at 56) Normal examination findings are not indicative of disabling pain. Gowell v. Apfel, 242 F.3d 793, 796 (8th Cir. 2001). At six doctors' visits in 2014 and 2015, Ms. Hart denied musculoskeletal symptoms. (Tr. at 346, 351, 356, 362, 374, 380) In May 2015, Ms. Hart had normal range-of-motion in her extremities ...

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