United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff Crit Walker seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of his application for supplemental security income ("SSI") based on disability under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. The ALJ found that although Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of degenerative lumbosacral disc disease with residual pain and radiculopathy, he retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work and so was not disabled. After careful review, the Court holds the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
Factual and Procedural Background
The medical record is summarized in the parties' briefs and is repeated here only to the extent necessary.
Plaintiff is a forty-year-old man. Plaintiff filed the pending application for benefits-his fourth-on October 14, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of May 12, 1999. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing on September 22, 2011, during which Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to October 14, 2009. On January 25, 2012, the ALJ issued her decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 11, 2013, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all of his administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
Standard of Review
A federal court's review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny SSI benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000). The court must "defer heavily" to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available "zone of choice, " and a decision is not outside this zone simply because the court might have decided the case differently were it the initial finder of fact. Buckner, 646 F.3d at 556.
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d), the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. Plaintiff contends the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and should be reversed because the ALJ erred: (1) at step four by not considering pain as a severe restriction on Plaintiff's ability to perform sedentary work; and (2) at step five by not including in her hypothetical to the Vocational Expert ("VE") a nonexertional impairment for pain. The Court finds no merit to either claim.
A. The ALJ's RFC assessment, including her credibility determination, is supported by substantial evidence on the record.
Plaintiff argues that he is disabled due to "constant" and "tremendous" back pain. Plaintiff claims this pain is an eight or nine on a scale of one to ten, and that he experiences this pain "every day, all day." R. 48, 52, 54-55. Thus, he contends, the ALJ erred in not finding pain prevented him from performing the full range of sedentary work.
A claimant's RFC is based on the combined effects of all of a claimant's credible limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945 (emphasis added). In determining a claimant's RFC, the ALJ may consider a host of factors, including the claimant's medical history, medical signs and laboratory findings, effects of treatment, reports of daily activities, lay evidence, recorded observations, medical source statements, effects of symptoms, and attempts to work. SSR 96-8p. It is the claimant's burden to prove her RFC. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004).
The Court emphasizes that the regulations restrict the RFC determination to credible limitations, because the ALJ found Plaintiff's subjective complaint of disabling pain were not credible to the extent they indicated he could not perform sedentary work. R. at 15, 27. And substantial evidence on the record here supports the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's allegations of disabling pain are not credible.
First, as the ALJ noted, there was little evidence that Plaintiff ever sought treatment for back pain. For example, for almost two years after his alleged disability onset date in 2009, Plaintiff sought no treatment for back pain. R. at 24, 263-65 (treatment records dated Aug. 6, 2011). During this time, when Plaintiff sought medical treatment, it was for complaints unrelated to back pain. R. at 20-27. This contradicts Plaintiff's assertions of disabling back pain. See Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 967 (8th Cir. 2003). Plaintiff's response-that he did not seek treatment for back pain because of financial constraints-is belied by the fact that: (1) he did not seek free or lost cost medical care, despite the fact that it appears to have been available; (2) he did not begin seeking regular treatment even after he obtained Medicaid in the fall of ...