United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division
LAJESSICA R. MAYO PLAINTIFF
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, DEFENDANT
following Recommended Disposition (Recommendation) has been
sent to Judge D.P. Marshall Jr. Either party may file written
objections if they disagree with its findings or conclusions.
Objections should be specific and should explain the factual
or legal basis for the objection. To be considered,
objections must be filed within 14 days. Parties risk waiving
the right to appeal questions of fact if they do not file
Mayo applied for social security disability benefits with an
August 25, 2015 onset date. (R. at 92). After a hearing, the
administrative law judge (ALJ) denied Ms. Mayo's
application (R. at 21), and later, the Appeals Council denied
her request for review. (R. at 1). The ALJ's decision,
therefore, stands as the Commissioner's final decision.
Ms. Mayo filed this case requesting judicial review.
The Commissioner's Decision
found that Ms. Mayo had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disk disease; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome;
fibromyalgia; chronic pain syndrome; chondromalacia; seizure
disorder; major depressive disorder; bipolar disorder; post-
traumatic stress disorder; and obesity. (R. at 12). The ALJ
found, nevertheless, that Ms. Mayo had the residual
functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, with the
following additional limitations: she could not climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could not perform lower
extremity foot control operations; could not perform work
with hazards or at unprotected heights; could no more than
frequently perform handling duties; must be able to use a
cane as needed to access her workstation on level ground; was
limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks with
supervision that is simple, direct, and concrete and can be
learned within thirty days; no more than occasional changes
to the workplace setting; and no required interaction with
the general public. (R. at 15). Ms. Mayo had no past relevant
work. (R. at 19).
heard testimony from a vocational expert (VE), who testified
that a person of Ms. Mayo's age, with her education, work
experience, and RFC could perform jobs in the national
economy, such as price marker or production assembler. (R.
20). The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Ms. Mayo was not
disabled. (R. at 21).
Mayo urges reversal of the ALJ's decision because he
failed to fully and fairly develop the record; improperly
found that her impairments were controlled with medication;
mistakenly stated that she had received only conservative
treatment; and failed to include limitations related to her
moderate deficiencies in concentration, persistence, and
appeal, the Court will review the decision to determine
whether the ALJ committed legal error and determine whether
the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence
in the record as a whole. Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d
1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). “Substantial
evidence” in this context means “enough that a
reasonable mind would find [the evidence] 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. Milam v.
Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015). The Court
will not reverse the Commissioner's decision, however,
“merely because substantial evidence exists for the
opposite decision.” Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d
185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted).
has a duty to fully and fairly develop the record independent
of the claimant's burden to press her case. Combs v.
Berryhill, 878 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2017).
“This duty includes the responsibility of ensuring that
the record includes evidence from a treating physician, or at
least an examining physician, addressing the particular
impairments at issue.” Strongson v. Barnhart,
361 F.3d 1066, 1071-72 (8th Cir. 2004). The ALJ's
obligation to seek additional evidence is triggered, however,
only if a critical issue is underdeveloped. Martise v.
Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 926-27 (8th Cir. 2011).
case, there is no evidence in the record from a treating or
examining source that addresses the effect of Ms. Mayo's
physical impairments on her ability to work. The Commissioner
cites Hensley v. Colvin, 829 F.3d 926 (8th Cir.
2016) to support her argument that no opinion evidence is
necessary to support an ALJ's decision. The Commissioner
is correct that opinion evidence is not necessarily required,
but there must be some evidence from a treating or examining
source addressing how a claimant's impairment limits her
abilities to perform work-related activities.
Strongson, 361 F.3d at 1071-72. Notably, in
Hensley, the record was not entirely lacking a
physician assessment of that claimant's physical
limitations. The record included a letter from one of the
claimant's treating physicians addressing the
claimant's physical limitations, although the letter was
not in the form of a medical source statement or formal
opinion. Hensley, 829 F.3d at 932.
Because a claimant's RFC is a medical question, an
ALJ's assessment of it must be supported by some medical
evidence of the claimant's ability to function in the
workplace. Steed v. Astrue, 524 F.3d 872, 875 (8th
Cir. 2008) (quoting Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 619
(8th Cir. 2007)). The ALJ “may not simply draw his own
inferences about plaintiff's functional ability from
medical reports.” Strongson, 361 F.3d at 1070.
Combs v. Berryhill, 878 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir.
case, the ALJ necessarily interpreted Ms. Mayo's medical
records to determine her RFC because the record lacked an
examining physician's assessment. The record did include
opinions from non-examining, consulting state agency
doctors-and the ALJ gave those opinions some weight-but those
made up the only opinion evidence in the record.
Non-examining physician opinions, standing alone, are
normally insufficient to support an ALJ's decision.
Singh v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 448, 452 (8th Cir. 2000).
In fairness, the ALJ did not rely heavily on the state agency
doctors' opinions but, in the absence of other medical
opinion evidence, the ALJ was left to his own inferences and
interpretation of ...