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Calzaretta v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southwestern Division

February 26, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Denise Calzaretta seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of complex regional pain syndrome, but she retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform her past relevant work as a pharmacy technician and a teacher's aide.

Because substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the ALJ's opinion, the Commissioner's denial of benefits is AFFIRMED.

Factual and Procedural Background

A summary of the entire record is presented in the parties' briefs and is repeated here only to the extent necessary.

Plaintiff filed her application on September 12, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2004. Plaintiff's date of last insured was December 31, 2011. So to receive benefits, she had to demonstrate that she was disabled between March 1, 2004 and December 31, 2011. See Turpin v. Colvin, 750 F.3d 989, 993 (8th Cir. 2014) (noting that the plaintiff must establish that she was disabled between the alleged disability onset date and the date of last insured). The Commissioner found she failed to do so, and Plaintiff requested an ALJ to review this decision. The ALJ conducted a telephonic hearing, and on April 19, 2013, he rendered a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff appealed to the Social Security Administration Appeals Council, which denied review. This denial left 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).

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.


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.[1]

Plaintiff raises two Step Four arguments: (1) the ALJ erred by discounting her credibility; and (2) the ALJ erred in discounting the opinion of her treating physician Ron Ellis, M.D. ("Dr. Ellis"). The Court addresses each argument in turn.

I. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's credibility determination.

Throughout the application process, Plaintiff steadfastly claimed that the pain from an allegedly botched dental procedure rendered her disabled. The ALJ ultimately found that this procedure resulted in the severe impairment of complex regional pain syndrome, but in formulating the RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff's subjective allegations of disabling pain less than fully credible. To support this conclusion, the ALJ cited: (1) inconsistencies between her allegations and the objective medical records; (2) her history of fulltime and part-time work following the dental procedure; and (3) the incongruity between her daily activities and subjective allegations. R. at 27-29. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in so concluding.

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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). When the ALJ articulates inconsistencies that undermine the claimant's subjective complaints and those inconsistencies ...

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