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Aborn v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, St. Joseph Division

September 19, 2016

SHAUNA ABORN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner's denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The Administrative Law Judge denied Plaintiff's claims and the Appeals Counsel subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's determination. Therefore, Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and the matter is now ripe for judicial review. The Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c)(3) and 405(g).


         The Court's role in reviewing an ALJ's decision is to determine whether the “findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1042-43 (8th Cir. 2007) (citing Haggard v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 591, 594 (8th Cir.1999)). “Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.” Id. “The fact that some evidence may support a conclusion opposite from that reached by the Commissioner does not alone permit our reversal of the Commissioner's decision.” Id. (citing Kelley v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 958, 961 (8th Cir. 2004)); Travis v. Astrue, 477 F.3d 1037, 1040 (8th Cir. 2007). If the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court may not reverse the decision simply because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome. Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002). In other words, the Court cannot reverse simply because it would have decided the case differently. Id. (citing Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993)). Courts “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration” and will disturb the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside the “zone of choice.” Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted). Further, the Court defers to the ALJ's determinations of the credibility of witness testimony, as long as the ALJ's determinations are supported by good reasons and substantial evidence. Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 578 (8th Cir. 2006).


         The essence of Plaintiff's assertion of error is that the ALJ improperly relied on the opinions of non-examining, state agency physicians whose review of the medical records did not include Plaintiff's most recent medical records. Plaintiff had multiple visits to clinics and a visit to the hospital in the period following the evaluations performed by the state agency physicians. Although the ALJ examined and considered these records, finding them to be consistent with the findings of the earlier examinations, Plaintiff claims that these later records demonstrate Plaintiff was more limited than the Residual Functional Capacity found by the ALJ. Thus, Plaintiff claims the ALJ's RFC is not supported by substantial evidence in the record.

         The Court has thoroughly reviewed the administrative record on appeal, including the medical records, hearing testimony, and the ALJ's opinion. The Court concludes that the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and was within the available “zone of choice.” Buckner, 646 F.3d at 556.

         The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and obesity. (Tr. 15). The ALJ found the following Residual Functional Capacity for Plaintiff:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. She can stand or walk for up two hours and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. She cannot climb ladders,, ropes and scaffolds but can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She must avoid all unprotected heights and hazardous machinery.

(Tr. 18).

         An ALJ must base the RFC on all of the relevant evidence in the record. Hutsell v. Massanari, 259 F.3d 707, 711 (8th Cir. 2001). “[S]ome medical evidence” must support the RFC finding. Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001).

         Plaintiff claims the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ gave great weight to the opinions of two non-examining physicians, and the opinions of those physicians “failed to address the severity of the findings in the lumbar MRI and also did not have access to substantial evidence submitted after the opinion concerning another year and a half of treatment.” (Pl.'s Br. 13). Plaintiff had an MRI on April 6, 2012, which showed:

L5 bilateral spondylysis with grade 1 anterolistheses L5 on S1 and moderate to severe secondary degenerative disc disease with mild lateral recess and moderate to severe bilateral neural foraminal narrowing which may have been impinging upon either of the exiting L5 nerve roots. Otherwise moderate to severe multilevel degenerative disc disease with levels of mild central canal and moderate to severe neural foraminal narrowing as described with possible impingement of any of the exiting nerve roots at ¶ 2-L3 and below.

(Tr. 435). Plaintiff claims the non-examining physician “ignored the severe findings in the lumbar MRI as a contributing factor to [Plaintiff's] severe limitations.” (Pl.'s Br. 13). This is not accurate. Dr. Trowbridge, the initial physician, noted that there were “reported results of [an] MRI from 4/6/2012 with multilevel disc desiccation with anterolisthesis of L5 on S1 resulting in some bilateral neural foraminal narrowing causing nerve root impingement; also, central canal stenosis multiple levels.” (Tr. 63). Dr. Rees reviewed the same evidence and noted, “MRI of lumbar spine reveals disc desiccation L5-S1. [Range of motion] in the lumbar spine decreased. On 5/1/12 during the [physical exam] there was tenderness to palpation in the lower back with decreased [range of motion].” (Tr. 406). Dr. Trowbridge concluded that Plaintiff could occasionally lift/carry twenty pounds, frequently lift/carry ten pounds, stand/walk for up to two hours with normal breaks, and sit for about six hours with normal breaks. (Tr. 65-66). Dr. Trowbridge took into consideration the fact that Plaintiff “is exertionally limited by back and ...

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