United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southwestern Division
DOUGLAS HARPOOL, District Judge.
Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner's denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and the matter is ripe for judicial review. The Court has carefully reviewed the files and records in this case and finds the opinion of the ALJ is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. The decision of the Commission is AFFIRMED.
Plaintiff was born on July 4, 1962. After graduating from high school, Plaintiff worked as a housekeeper, office clerk, cashier, home health aide, and office manager. She left her most recent job in February of 2008, which is when she claims her disability began. Plaintiff alleges she is no longer able to work due to injuries caused or exacerbated by an auto accident that she was in on October 22, 2007. Plaintiff filed an initial application for disability benefits, which was denied on February 11, 2011. She filed the current application on February 25, 2011.
Plaintiff lists a variety of physical and mental conditions that limit her ability to work. Plaintiff's chief complaint is neck and back pain due to "bulging discs in neck." She further complains of severe headaches, dizziness/vertigo, numbness in her arms/hands, high blood pressure, memory loss, concentration problems, difficulty breathing, and MRSA (staph carrier). Plaintiff claims that the pain associated with these conditions limits her ability to sit or stand for more than five to ten minutes, concentrate for more than thirty minutes, sleep, complete household chores, and engage in physical activity. Plaintiff further asserts that pain affects her ability to drive, lift, and reach. Other than pain, Plaintiff alleges she is functionally limited due to numbness in her arms/hands that makes it difficult for her to hold and clasp objects; dizziness that impairs her ability to stand and walk; air pollutants that activate her asthma and allergies and lead to shortness of breath; and headaches and fatigue that negatively affect her comprehension and memory. Plaintiff's husband submitted a letter echoing these alleged impairments.
Plaintiff's medical records show that Plaintiff has been diagnosed with asthma, headaches, dizziness, high blood pressure, and posterior cervical pain. Treatment records reveal that Plaintiff has been prescribed medication for her asthma, allergies, headaches, and high blood pressure that appears to be effective. As to Plaintiff's neck and back pain, radiological testing shows multilevel degenerative changes with spinal cord stenosis at Plaintiff's C5-C6 and C6-C7. Plaintiff's cervical spine region exhibits tenderness and occasionally displays a limited range of motion. Doctor Barnes reported that Plaintiff's MRI's suggest mild spinal stenosis, which Plaintiff's neurosurgeon is treating conservatively. As to Plaintiff's complaints concerning her arms/hands, physician notes describe Plaintiff's upper extremities as "positive" for pain, numbness, and weakness at certain times but also as "negative" or "unremarkable" at other times. Plaintiff's musculoskeletal exams generally show normal range of motion and normal neural reflexes. Doctors Jumper and Barnes opine that Plaintiff's complaints of arm and hand pain/numbness are likely related to her spinal cord stenosis.
The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. The ALJ first explained that Plaintiff's current application considers only the time period from February 12, 2011 to June 30, 2012. The ALJ determined that, during that time period, Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments including degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, headaches, asthma with allergies, hypertension, and thyroid dysfunction. According to the ALJ, these impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of one of those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a range of "light work" as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). Specifically, he found Plaintiff could lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand or walk a total of 6 hours and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour work day; occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, and climb - but not ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; perform occasional overhead reaching; perform tasks not involving exposure to temperature and humidity extremes or requiring more than infrequent outdoor activity; perform work not involving operation of vibrating tools or equipment; perform tasks not involving concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dust, gases, fumes, and smoke; perform tasks not requiring constant use of foot or hand controls/pedals; perform no more than frequent fine and gross manipulation; and perform work in an environment with no greater than a moderate level of background noise. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not preclude her from performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, including work as an arcade attendant, rental clerk, or video clerk. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time period under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Act.
Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry concerning whether substantial evidence supports the findings of the Commissioner and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence and requires enough evidence to allow a reasonable person to find adequate support for the Commissioner's conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Freeman v. Apfel, 208 F.3d 687, 690 (8th Cir. 2000). This standard requires a court to consider both the evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision and the evidence that detracts from it. Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008). That the reviewing court would come to a different conclusion is not a sufficient basis for reversal. Wiese v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 728, 730 (8th Cir. 2009). "If, after review, we find it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, we must affirm the denial of benefits." Id. (quoting Mapes v. Chater, 82 F.3d 259, 262 (8th Cir. 1996)).
To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act and accompanying regulations, a claimant must prove that she is disabled. Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010). Disability is defined as "the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Social Security Administration has established a five-step process for determining whether an individual is disabled. Id. at § 404.1520(a). Here, Plaintiff's arguments surround the ALJ's determination of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC").
RFC is defined as the most a claimant can still do despite her limitations. Id. at § 404.1545(a)(1). In other words, it is:
an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities.
SSR 96-8P. The ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC "based on all of the relevant medical and other evidence" such as "medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and claimant's own descriptions of his limitations." Id. at § 404.1545(a)(3); Tellez v. Barnhart, 403 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 2005). While "some medical evidence must support the determination of a claimant's RFC, " the ALJ "is not required to rely entirely on a particular physician's opinion or choose between the opinions [of] any of the claimant's physicians." Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 927 (8th Cir. 2011); Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). The ALJ's decision "must include a narrative discussion [of RFC] ...