United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division
JANICE M. STEFANCIK, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
This action seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying Plaintiff Janice Stefancik's applications for Social Security benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff had two severe impairments, a partially displaced sternal fracture and a back disorder, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform past work as a clerk/cashier and telemarketer.
After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, the Court finds 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
The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.
Plaintiff filed the pending applications on May 17, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of March 23, 2009. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. On May 30, 2012, the ALJ held a hearing and on August 13, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 14, 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
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).
A federal court's review of the Commissioner of Social Security'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.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step four in the sequential evaluation process by: (1) discounting her credibility, and (2) finding she could perform past work as a clerk or telemarketer. These arguments are without merit.
A. The ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's credibility.
Plaintiff's primary claim-that the ALJ improperly discounted her credibility regarding the severity of her pain and the corresponding limitations-is unavailing. When the ALJ discounts a claimant's credibility, he is required to explain why he did not fully credit the claimant's complaints. Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 971 (8th Cir. 2000). In analyzing a claimant's subjective complaints of pain, the ALJ considers the entire record, including medical records; statements from the claimant and third parties; the claimant's daily activities; the duration, frequency and intensity of pain; the dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; precipitating and aggravating factors; and functional restrictions. Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). Credibility questions are "primarily for the ALJ to decide, not the courts." Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 558 (8th Cir. 2003). "If an ALJ explicitly discredits the claimant's testimony and gives good reasons for doing so, the Court should defer to the ALJ's credibility determination." Gregg v. Barnhart, 354 F.3d 710, 713 (8th Cir. 2003).
Here, the ALJ credited testimony from Plaintiff and her mother that she had suffered multiple injuries since 2009, that she experienced severe back and neck pain, and that she was unable to return to her job as a janitor because she was unable to lift or be on her feet for long periods of time. R. at 15. But the AJL gave good reasons for discrediting their testimony to the extent they were claiming Plaintiff was totally disabled. R. at 14-17. The ALJ rightly observed that the objective medical evidence failed to support Plaintiff's allegations of disabling back and chest pain. R. at 201-240, 312-19. For example, the ALJ noted that although Plaintiff alleged her back pain manifests itself in radicular symptoms in her legs, a musculoskeletal examination undermined these allegations. Plaintiff had no trouble performing straight leg raises and she had normal reflexes, almost normal range of motion in her joints and spine, normal strength in her extremities, and no evidence of swelling, erythema,  contracture,  crepitus,  or deformity in her joints. R. at 312-19. It is well-settled that the absence of objective medical evidence is an important factor the ALJ must consider in evaluating the claimant's testimony and complaints. Forte v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 892, 895 (8th Cir. 2004). A claimant cannot establish disability based solely on her own subjective complaints, even if those complaints are echoed by a ...