Bearden v. Colvin

Decision Date02 December 2014
Docket NumberCIVIL NO. 13-2211
PartiesMARILYN D. BEARDEN PLAINTIFF v CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Arkansas
MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, Marilyn D. Bearden, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under the provisions of Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). In this judicial review, the Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

I. Procedural Background

Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI on March 17, 2011, alleging an inability to work since November 22, 2011, due to back pain, depression, arthritis - joint pains, and right shoulder problems. (Tr. 11, 215). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. An administrative hearing was held on June 12, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 25-57).

At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was fifty-five years of age and possessed a GED. (Tr. 31, 216). Plaintiff had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a kitchen helper/dishwasher, cashier, retail stocker, and plastic pipe gluer. (Tr. 53-54).

By a written decision dated August 23, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "arthritis, lumbar degenerative disc disease of the back, shoulder right rotator cuff tear, asthma, and depression." (Tr. 13). After reviewing all of the evidence presented, however, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments. (Tr. 13). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in CFR 416.967(b) except lift/carry up to 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; stand/walk up to 6 hours in an 8 hour workday and sit up to 6 hours; frequent climbing of ramps and stairs; occasional climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds; frequent balance, stoop, kneel and crouch; occasional crawl; occasional overhead reach on the right; frequent handle and finger bilaterally; avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation; able to work where interpersonal contact is routine but superficial; complexity of tasks is learned by experience, several variables, judgment within limits; and the supervision required is little for routine but detailed for non-routine. (T. 14). With the help of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform her PRW as a kitchen helper/dishwasher, convenience store cashier, retail stocker, and plastic pipe gluer. (Tr. 18-19, 52-56). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, during the relevant time period. (Tr. 19).

Plaintiff requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council on September 23, 2012 (Tr. 5-7), which denied that request on July 19, 2013. (Tr. 1-3). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of theparties. (Doc. 7). Both parties have filed appeals briefs, and the case is ready for decision. (Doc. 12, 14).

II. Applicable Law.

This Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. "Our review extends beyond examining the record to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's decision; we also consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from that decision." Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). As long as there is substantial evidence in the record that supports the Commissioner's decision, the Court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because the Court would have decided the case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In other words, if after reviewing the record it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the findings of the ALJ, the decision of the ALJ must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000).

It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of proving his or her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at lease one year and that prevents her from engaging in substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v.Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines "physical or mental impairment" as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382(3)©. A Plaintiff must show that her disability, not simply her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).

The Commissioner's regulations require the application of a five-step sequential evaluation process to each claim for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)- (f)(2003). Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his or her RFC. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C .F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).

III. Discussion

The Court has reviewed the Briefs filed by the Parties, the Transcript of the proceedings before the Commission, including a review of the hearing before the ALJ, the medical records, and relevant administrative records and finds the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

A. Step Two Analysis:

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by not considering her alleged hand and manipulative problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, hearing loss, insomnia, migraines, and mental disorders, or the effects of medications that she takes to treat these conditions, in combination with her other impairments. (Pl. Br. 17). The ALJ wrote that he considered all of Plaintiff's conditions anddetermined that several alleged limitations were not severe because they did not cause more than minimal functional limitations. (Tr. 13).

Step two of the regulations involves a determination, based on the medical evidence, whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At step two, the claimant bears the burden of proving that she has a severe impairment. Nguyen v. Chater, 75 F.3d 429, 430-431 (8th Cir. 1996). An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if there is no more than a minimal effect on the claimant's ability to work. See, e.g., Nguyen, 75 F.3d at 431.

The ALJ set forth that at step two, he must determine whether Plaintiff had "a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that is severe." (Tr. 12). The ALJ also stated that an impairment or combination of impairments is "not severe" when medical and other evidence established only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. (Tr. 12). The ALJ stated that at step three, he must determine whether the Plaintiff's "impairment or combination of impairments" meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in the relevant listings. (Tr. 12). This language demonstrates that the ALJ considered the combined effect of Plaintiff's impairments. See Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 924 (8th Cir. 2011); Raney v. Barnhart, 396 F.3d 1007, 1011 (8th Cir. 2005).

Plaintiff's activities of daily living and the absence of any evidence that documented other severe impairments supported the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff did not have additional severe impairments. In her Disability Report, Plaintiff only listed "back, arthritis, a right shoulderproblem, and depression" as her limiting conditions. (Tr. 215). Plaintiff's failure to allege any other impairments in her application for disability benefits was significant, even if the evidence of the impairment was later developed. Dunahoo v. Apfel, 241 F.3d 1033, 1039 (8th Cir. 2001). At her hearing, Plaintiff additionally testified that she suffered from insomnia, which was treated by trazodone; migraines, which were treated by Zomig; anxiety when driving; and memory problems. (Tr. 38-39, 41-43, 48-49).

Although the ALJ did not determine that Plaintiff's memory or anxiety conditions were severe impairments, the ALJ addressed both conditions in the written decision. (Tr. 14). While the discussion was brief, the conditions were addressed. When the record does not support a condition to be a severe impairment, the ALJ's duty to discuss the condition is minimized. See Salts v. Sullivan, 958 F.2d 840, 844 (8th Cir. 1992). Even assuming that the ALJ should have included additional severe impairments at step two, the error is harmless so long as the ALJ considered all of a claimant's impairments in the remaining steps of the disability determination. See Maziarz v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs. 837 F.2d 240, 244 (6th Cir. 19...

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