United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
SANDRA D. GAMEZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff Sandra D. Gamez seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying her applications for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits ("SSDI") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as a small parts assembler, hospital products assembler, and electric assembler/light fixture assembler.
Because the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
Procedural and Factual Background
A complete summary of the record is presented in the parties' briefs and repeated here only to the extent necessary. Plaintiff's SSDI and SSI applications, as amended, alleged disability beginning March 30, 2004. After the Commissioner denied her applications on November 9, 2006, Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing. An initial hearing was held on March 5, 2008, and a supplemental hearing was held on August 26, 2009. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled on September 28, 2009.
The Social Security Administration Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review and remanded the case to another ALJ on December 22, 2010. After holding another hearing on March 16, 2012, the second ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and issued a decision to that effect on April 12, 2012. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 30, 2013, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
Standard of Review
A federal court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability 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.
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine 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 at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in formulating her RFC and in posing a question to the vocational expert ("VE"). These arguments lack merit.
I. The ALJ properly formulated Plaintiff's RFC.
Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's RFC finding. A claimant's RFC is fundamentally a "medical question." Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001). In determining this medical question, the ALJ should accord a treating physician's opinion controlling weight so long as it is well-supported by medically acceptable diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c); Myers v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 521, 525 (8th Cir. 2013). Nonetheless, an ALJ may discount or disregard a treating physician's opinion where it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, such as additional medical evidence or the claimant's testimony. Myers, 721 F.3d at 525.
Plaintiff specifically argues that the ALJ, in making his RFC determination, erred by failing to consider: (1) all of her GAF scores; (2) an opinion by J.B. Astrik, M.D.; (3) fluctuation of her ...