United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
RICKEY E. HAMILTON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff Rickey Hamilton seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's partial denial of his applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et. seq., and supplemental security income ("SSI") based on disability under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et. seq. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff was not disabled. After reviewing evidence that was not available to the ALJ, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration partially overturned the ALJ's decision. In relevant part, the Appeals Council found that Plaintiff became disabled as of June 17, 2011, but prior to that date, he retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of light work.
After careful review, the Court holds the Appeals Council'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 filed his application for disability insurance benefits and SSI on March 3, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of January 19, 2009. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing, and on November 30, 2011, issued her decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council accepted Plaintiff's request for review and on March 8, 2013, issued a partially favorable decision finding Plaintiff was disabled as of June 17, 2011.
Plaintiff has exhausted all of his 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 of Social Security's decision to deny disability and 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 and Appeals Council erred by: (1) not finding that his diabetes and associated peripheral neuropathy, hepatitis C, and hypertension were severe impairments; and (2) finding that prior to June 17, 2011, Plaintiff could perform light work. The Court finds no merit to either claim.
A. Substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff's diabetes, hepatitis C, and hypertension were not severe impairments.
A medically determinable impairment is "severe" if it more than minimally affects the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. The impairment "must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques... and must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the claimant's] statement of symptoms..." Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 923 (8th Cir. 2011). The claimant bears the burden of establishing that his impairment is severe. Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). Although severity is not an onerous requirement, it is also not a toothless standard. Id. at 708.
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's and the Appeals Council's findings that Plaintiff's diabetes and associated peripheral neuropathy, hepatitis C, and hypertension were not severe impairments. Both the ALJ and the Appeals Council extensively discussed Plaintiff's diabetes, including his allegations of neuropathic pain, and properly analyzed it. R. at 5-9, 19-23, 36-38. For example, in finding his diabetes was not a severe impairment, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff testified that insulin controlled his diabetes, and the Appeals Council observed that his diabetes was well-controlled until June 17, 2011. R. at 6, 23, 26, 883-84. Since it is well-established that "[i]mpairments that are controllable or amenable to treatment do not support a finding of disability, " the ALJ and Appeals Council did not err. Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 846 (8th Cir. 2009). The ALJ and Appeals Council also recognized that Plaintiff's peripheral neuropathy complicated his diabetes, but rightly noted that objective neurological ...