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Keeling v. Saul

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

September 3, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, DEFENDANT


         I. Introduction:

         On August 24, 2015, Becky Marie Keeling applied for Title II disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning December 31, 2014. (Tr. at 15) Ms. Keeling's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied her application. (Tr. at 29) Ms. Keeling requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, but that request was denied. (Tr. at 1-5) Therefore, the ALJ's decision now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Keeling filed this case seeking judicial review of the decision denying her benefits.

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         The ALJ found that Ms. Keeling had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of December 31, 2014 through December 31, 2017, when she last met the insured status requirements. (Tr. at 17) At step two of the five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Keeling had the following severe impairments: disorder of the back and anxiety. (Tr. at 18)

         After finding that Ms. Keeling's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ determined that Ms. Keeling had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with additional limitations. (Tr. at 18-21) She could only frequently stoop or crouch. (Id.) Also, mentally, she was limited to semi-skilled work where interpersonal contact is routine but superficial, the complexity of tasks is learned by experience, involves several variables, uses judgment within limits, and the supervision required is little for routine but detailed for non-routine tasks. (Id.)

         The ALJ next found that Ms. Keeling could perform her past relevant work as a general clerk and billing clerk. (Tr. at 26-27) Relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ also found, based on Ms. Keeling's age, education, work experience and RFC, that she could perform work in the national economy as a utility teller and food sales clerk. (Tr. at 28) Based on these findings, the ALJ held that Ms. Keeling was not disabled. (Tr. at 28-29)

         III. Discussion:

         A. Standard of Review

         The Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Ash v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 686, 689 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting McNamara v. Astrue, 590 F.3d 607, 610 (8th Cir. 2010)). “Substantial evidence” in this context means “enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.” Id. (quoting McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court must consider not only evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision, but also evidence that supports a contrary outcome. Id. (quoting Carlson v. Astrue, 604 F.3d 589, 592 (8th Cir. 2010)). The Court cannot reverse the decision, however, “merely because substantial evidence exists for the opposite decision.” Lacroix v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 881, 885 (8th Cir. 2006) (quoting Johnson v. Chater, 87 F.3d 1015, 1017 (8th Cir.1996)).

         B. Ms. Keeling's Argument on Appeal

         Ms. Keeling contends that the ALJ's decision to deny benefits is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ erred by discounting the opinions of treating physicians Crosby and Allen and consulting physician Webber and instead relied on the opinions of state agency physicians who did not actually examine her. (#9 at 10) After reviewing the record, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not err in denying benefits.

         1. Relevant Facts

         Ms. Keeling was 46 years old at the time of the hearing, and she lived alone. (Tr. at 37) She was a high school graduate and had taken some college courses. (Tr. at 37) She had past work as a secretary for her husband's farm business, but that employment ended when she and her husband divorced. (Tr. at 40-41) She reported that she was able to care for her granddaughter occasionally and care for her pets. She reported no problem with personal care. She went outside daily, performed simple chores, and was able to drive. (Tr. at 224-32, 255-62)

         Glenn Allen Cosby, M.D., diagnosed Ms. Keeling with lumbar spondylosis at ¶ 5-S1; and in November 2008, Ms. Keeling had a “[l]eft-sided L5-S1 decompressive hemilaminectomy, total fasciectomy, and total discectomy with foraminotomy.” (Tr. at 287) In appointments following her back surgery in January, March, June, and September of 2009 and in February 2010, Ms. Keeling reported to Dr. Cosby that her pain had improved. (Tr. at ...

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