Mehaffey v. Apfel

Decision Date03 February 2000
Docket NumberNo. C98-4101-MWB.,C98-4101-MWB.
Citation81 F.Supp.2d 952
PartiesBrian MEHAFFEY, Petitioner, v. Kenneth S. APFEL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

Gregory W. Peterson of Elverson, Vasey & Peterson, L.L.P., Des Moines, IA, for Petitioner.

Martha A. Fagg, Assistant United States Attorney, Sioux City, IA, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

BENNETT, Chief Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

In this action, plaintiff Brian Mehaffey seeks judicial review of a decision of an administrative law judge ("ALJ") denying his application for Social Security benefits under Title II (disability insurance ("DI")) of the Social Security Act. Mehaffey seeks such benefits for a period beginning on December 1, 1994. He alleges that he has been unable to engage in any substantial and gainful work since that date as a result of his limited intellectual abilities. However, Mehaffey was denied DI benefits at each stage of the Social Security administrative process.1

Dissatisfied with the results of the administrative process, Mehaffey filed this action for judicial review on November 27, 1998. This case was referred to Magistrate Judge Zoss on September 8, 1999, for the filing of a Report and Recommendation. Judge Zoss filed such a Report and Recommendation on September 22, 1999. In that Report and Recommendation, Judge Zoss concluded that the ALJ did not error in her submission of hypothetical questions to the Vocational Expert ("VE"); that the ALJ did not fail to give proper weight to the opinions of treating and consulting physicians; and, that the ALJ's credibility determinations were supported by substantial evidence. See Report and Recommendation at 10-22. Consequently, Judge Zoss therefore recommended that the ALJ's decision be sustained and that this court affirm the ALJ's decision.

Mehaffey filed objections to Judge Zoss's Report and Recommendation on October 4, 1999. This matter is now before the court for review of Judge Zoss's Report and Recommendation in light of Mehaffey's objections.

II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

The court's legal analysis begins with consideration of the standards of review applicable to a report and recommendation of a magistrate judge and an ALJ's denial of Social Security benefits. With those standards in mind, the court will then address Mehaffey's objections to the report and recommendation.

A. Standards Of Review
1. Review of a report and recommendation

The standard of review to be applied by the district court to a report and recommendation of a magistrate judge is established by statute:

A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate [judge].

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has repeatedly held that it is reversible error for the district court to fail to conduct a de novo review of a magistrate judge's report where such review is required. See, e.g., Hosna v. Groose, 80 F.3d 298, 306 (8th Cir.) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 860, 117 S.Ct. 164, 136 L.Ed.2d 107 (1996); Grinder v. Gammon, 73 F.3d 793, 795 (8th Cir.1996) (citing Belk v. Purkett, 15 F.3d 803, 815 (8th Cir.1994)); Hudson v. Gammon, 46 F.3d 785, 786 (8th Cir. 1995) (also citing Belk). Because objections have been filed in this case, the court must conduct a de novo review. The court has done so by reviewing the record before Judge Zoss in light of the Mehaffey's objections to Judge Zoss's Report and Recommendation.

2. Review of an administrative denial of benefits

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently explained the standard for judicial review of an ALJ's denial of Social Security benefits as follows:

We must uphold the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. See Metz v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 374, 376 (8th Cir.1995). Our task is not to reweigh the evidence, and we may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite conclusion or merely because we would have decided the case differently. See Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir.1993); Smith v. Shalala, 987 F.2d 1371, 1374 (8th Cir.1993). In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, we must consider evidence in the record that supports the ALJ's decision as well as evidence that detracts from it. See Brockman v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1344, 1346 (8th Cir.1993).

Harwood v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 1039, 1042 (8th Cir.1999); Weiler v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1107, 1109 (8th Cir.1999) ("We cannot reverse the ALJ's decision merely because the record contains substantial evidence supporting a contrary outcome."). "`Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support the [ALJ's] conclusion.'" Weiler, 179 F.3d at 1109 (citing Pierce v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 704, 706 (8th Cir.1999)). However, the reviewing court "must determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Id. (again citing Pierce, 173 F.3d at 706).

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has also explained how a court is to determine whether the ALJ's findings "are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole":

In Gavin v. Heckler, 811 F.2d 1195, 1199 (8th Cir.1987), the Court discussed the difference between "substantial evidence" and "substantial evidence on the record as a whole." "Substantial evidence on the record as a whole" wrote then Chief Judge Lay, "requires a more scrutinizing analysis" than the "substantial evidence" test. The Court went on to say:

In the review of an administrative decision, "[t]he substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. National Labor Relations Bd., 340 U.S. 474, 488, 71 S.Ct. 456, 464, 95 L.Ed. 456 (1951). Thus, the court must also take into consideration the weight of the evidence in the record and apply a balancing test to evidence which is contradictory. See Steadman v. Securities and Exchange Commission, 450 U.S. 91, 99, 101 S.Ct. 999, 1006, 67 L.Ed.2d 69 (1981). It follows that the only way a reviewing court can determine if the entire record was taken into consideration is for the district court to evaluate in detail the evidence it used in making its decision and how any contradictory evidence balances out.

Gavin v. Heckler, 811 F.2d at 1199. In short, a reviewing court should neither consider a claim de novo, nor abdicate its function to carefully analyze the entire record. Brinker v. Weinberger, 522 F.2d 13, 16 (8th Cir.1975).

Wilcutts v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 1134, 1136-37 (8th Cir.1998). Thus, this court must undertake a "scrutinizing analysis" of the evidence in the record as a whole.

B. Mehaffey's Objections

Mehaffey initially objects to Judge Zoss's conclusion that the ALJ submitted an accurate hypothetical question to the VE. Specifically, Mehaffey contends that the following five nonexertial limitations were omitted from the ALJ's hypothetical question: (1) that Mehaffey needs a great deal of supervision or a job coach; (2) that Mehaffey is incapable of performing competitive work at a normal pace; (3) that Mehaffey is unable to accept instructions; (4) that Mehaffey is unable to respond appropriately to criticism; and (5) that Mehaffey is unable to avoid inappropriate behavior.

The Eighth Circuit has consistently held that questions posed to a vocational expert should set out precisely the claimant's physical and mental impairments. Warburton v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1047, 1049 (8th Cir.1999) ("Such a hypothetical "`should precisely set out the claimant's particular physical and mental impairments.'") (quoting House v. Shalala, 34 F.3d 691, 694 (8th Cir.1994)); Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir.1994) ("It is well established that `[q]uestions posed to a vocational expert should precisely set out the claimant's particular physical and mental impairments.'") (quoting Ledoux v. Schweiker, 732 F.2d 1385, 1388 (8th Cir.1984)) (quoting in turn Tennant v. Schweiker, 682 F.2d 707, 711 (8th Cir.1982)); Totz v. Sullivan, 961 F.2d 727, 730 (8th Cir.1992) ("It is well settled that the hypothetical question posed to a vocational expert must fully set forth a claimant's impairments."); Greene v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 99, 101 (8th Cir.1991) ("The law is clear that `hypothetical questions posed to vocational experts in such circumstances should precisely set out the claimant's particular physical and mental impairments.'") (quoting Tennant, 682 F.2d at 711); Shelltrack v. Sullivan, 938 F.2d 894, 898 (8th Cir.1991) ("A hypothetical question posed to a vocational expert must fully set forth a claimant's impairments."). The logical underpinning for such a requirement is that "[u]nless the hypothetical question comprehensively describes the limitations on a claimant's ability to function, a vocational expert will be unable to accurately assess whether jobs do exist for the claimant." Smith, 31 F.3d at 717. Thus, "[i]f a hypothetical question does not include all of the claimant's impairments, limitations, and restrictions, or is otherwise inadequate, a vocational expert's response cannot constitute substantial evidence to support a conclusion of no disability." Cox v. Apfel, 160 F.3d 1203, 1207 (8th Cir.1998) (citing Greene v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 99, 101 (8th Cir.1991)); accord Warburton, 188 F.3d at 1049; Smith, 31 F.3d at 717; Shelltrack, 938 F.2d at 898; Penn v. Sullivan, 896 F.2d 313, 316-17 (8th Cir.1990); Douglas v. Bowen, 836 F.2d 392, 396 (8th Cir.1987).

Here, the ALJ posed the following hypothetical question to the VE:

For purposes of the hypothetical question, we have a 36-year-old...

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