United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southwestern Division
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 Christine Trease's applications for Social Security benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the 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 several severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease, obesity, and chronic dysthymic disorder with anxiety symptoms and mixed personality disorder traits, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as a silverware wrapper, an advertising material distributor, and a photocopying machine operator.
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 her applications on April 18, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of March 17, 2010. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing, and on September 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on October 24, 2012, 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 the ALJ erred at step four in the sequential evaluation process because she: (1) failed to discuss adequately how the record medical evidence supports the RFC determination; (2) formulated an unsupported RFC assessment; (3) failed to develop the record concerning her functional limitations; and (4) improperly assessed her credibility. These arguments are without merit.
A. The ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's credibility.
Addressing Plaintiff's last argument first, the Court finds the ALJ did not err in discounting Plaintiff's credibility. When the ALJ discounts a claimant's credibility, she is required to explain why she 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 articulated several valid reasons for discounting Plaintiff's claims. First, the ALJ noted that the objective medical evidence did not support her disability claim. R. at 17. Plaintiff's physical and mental status exams, CT scans, and an MRI were, for the most part, unremarkable. R. at 194, 197, 215, 251, 261-62, 291, 295, 301. As the ALJ observed, other than a brief hospitalization in March 2011, Plaintiff received routine, conservative treatment. R. at 17. Moreover, there is nothing in the record from a treating or examining physician that supports a disability finding. This lack of evidence supplied a valid basis to discount Plaintiff's credibility. ...