Reid v. Social Security Administration Commissioner, No. 6:2019cv06114 - Document 15 (W.D. Ark. 2020)

Court Description: MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on July 1, 2020. (mjm)
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Reid v. Social Security Administration Commissioner Doc. 15 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS HOT SPRINGS DIVISION JUSTIN L. REID PLAINTIFF vs. Civil No. 6:19-cv-06114 COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION DEFENDANT MEMORANDUM OPINION Justin L. Reid (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his applications for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Act. The Parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment, and conducting all post-judgment proceedings. ECF No. 5. 1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter. 1. Background: Plaintiff protectively filed his disability applications on November 4, 2016. (Tr. 11). In his applications, Plaintiff alleges being disable due to epilepsy, grand mal seizures, and chronic 1 The docket numbers for this case are referenced by the designation “ECF No. ___” The transcript pages for this case are referenced by the designation “Tr” and refer to the document filed at ECF No. 11. These references are to the page number of the transcript itself not the ECF page number. 1 Dockets.Justia.com insomnia. (Tr. 201). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of October 31, 2013. (Tr. 11). These applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 11). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, and that hearing request was granted. Id. On November 20, 2018, the ALJ held an administrative hearing. (Tr. 46-72). At this hearing, Plaintiff was present but was not represented by counsel. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Ronald Smith testified at this administrative hearing. Id. On April 9, 2019, after the administrative hearing, the ALJ entered a fully unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s applications. (Tr. 11-21). The ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2021. (Tr. 14, Finding 1). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had only engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) from October 31, 2013 through December 31, 2016. (Tr. 14, Findings 2-3). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: nocturnal seizures. (Tr. 14-15, Finding 5). Despite being severe, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 15, Finding 6). In his decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined his Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (Tr. 16-19, Finding 7). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff retained the following RFC: After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is limited to occasional climbing of ramps and/or stairs; in which he would never be required to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; in which he would be able to avoid all exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery. 2 Id. The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 19-20, Finding 8). Considering that PRW, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was capable of performing his PRW as a bus person and line worker, both as it is actually and as it is generally performed. Id. Because Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform his PRW, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from October 31, 2013 through the date of his decision or through April 9, 2019. (Tr. 20, Finding 9). Plaintiff requested the Appeal’s Council’s review of this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1-4). The Appeals Council denied this request on August 16, 2019. Id. Thereafter, on October 1, 2019, Plaintiff appealed his administrative case to this Court. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on October 1, 2019. ECF No. 5. Both Parties have filed their appeal briefs, and this matter is now ripe for consideration. ECF Nos. 13-14. 2. Applicable Law: In reviewing this case, this Court is required to determine whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010); Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner’s decision. See Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. 3 See Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See 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 lasted at least one year and that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. See Cox v. Apfel, 160 F.3d 1203, 1206 (8th Cir. 1998); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines a “physical or mental impairment” as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382(3)(c). A plaintiff must show that his or her disability, not simply his or her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether the adult claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner uses the familiar five-step sequential evaluation. He determines: (1) whether the claimant is presently engaged in a “substantial gainful activity”; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience); (4) whether the claimant has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts 4 to the Commissioner to prove that there are other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See Cox, 160 F.3d at 1206; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f). The fact finder only considers the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or her RFC if the final stage of this analysis is reached. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003). 3. Discussion: In his appeal brief, Plaintiff raises the following three arguments for reversal: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluated his subjective allegations; (2) the ALJ erred in assessing his RFC; and (3) the ALJ erred by failing to contact his treating neurologist. ECF No. 13 at 1-21. Because the Court finds the ALJ erred in assessing his subjective complaints, the Court will only address Plaintiff’s first argument for reversal. The Court notes that in assessing the credibility of a claimant, the ALJ is required to examine and to apply the five factors from Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984) or from 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929. 2 See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). The factors to consider are as follows: (1) the claimant’s daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain; (3) the precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) the dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; and (5) the functional restrictions. See Polaski, 739 at 1322. Social Security Regulations 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 require the analysis of two additional factors: (1) “treatment, other than medication, you receive or have received for relief of your pain or other symptoms” and (2) “any measures you use or have used to relieve your pain or symptoms (e.g., lying flat on your back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, sleeping on a board, etc.).” However, under Polaski and its progeny, the Eighth Circuit has not yet required the analysis of these additional factors. See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). Thus, this Court will not require the analysis of these additional factors in this case. 5 2 The factors must be analyzed and considered in light of the claimant’s subjective complaints of pain. See id. The ALJ is not required to methodically discuss each factor as long as the ALJ acknowledges and examines these factors prior to discounting the claimant’s subjective complaints. See Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 971-72 (8th Cir. 2000). As long as the ALJ properly applies these five factors and gives several valid reasons for finding that the Plaintiff’s subjective complaints are not entirely credible, the ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to deference. See id.; Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006). The ALJ, however, cannot discount Plaintiff’s subjective complaints “solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them [the subjective complaints].” Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322. When discounting a claimant’s complaint of pain, the ALJ must make a specific credibility determination, articulating the reasons for discrediting the testimony, addressing any inconsistencies, and discussing the Polaski factors. See Baker v. Apfel, 159 F.3d 1140, 1144 (8th Cir. 1998). The inability to work without some pain or discomfort is not a sufficient reason to find a Plaintiff disabled within the strict definition of the Act. The issue is not the existence of pain, but whether the pain a Plaintiff experiences precludes the performance of substantial gainful activity. See Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259 (8th Cir. 1991). In the present action, the ALJ did not perform a full consideration of the Polaski factors. (Tr. 16-19). Instead of fully considering the Polaski factors, the ALJ provided the following routine statement: After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the claimant’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely 6 consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for the reasons explained in the decision. (Tr. 18). Based upon this review, the Court finds the ALJ improperly discounted Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. See Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322 (holding a claimant’s subjective complaints cannot be discounted “solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them [the subjective complaints]”). Accordingly, because the ALJ provided an insufficient basis for discounting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, this case must be reversed and remanded. 4. Conclusion: Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds the ALJ’s RFC determination and credibility analysis are not supported by substantial evidence in the record. As such, this case is reversed and remanded for further findings consistent with this opinion. A judgment incorporating these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58. ENTERED this 1st day of July 2020. Barry A. Bryant /s/ HON. BARRY A. BRYANT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 7