United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division
DOUGLAS HARPOOL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner's
denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits.
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 his 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).
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
concluded that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe
impairments: bilateral elbow osteoarthritis, sleep apnea,
depression, obesity, cardiac dysrhythmia, and left shoulder
arthritis. (Tr. 15). In the course of examining
Plaintiff's severe mental impairments, the ALJ noted that
Plaintiff has “moderate difficulties” in
“concentration, persistence, or pace, ” and she
concluded that Plaintiff has moderate limitations in
“sustaining focus, attention, and concentration
sufficiently long enough to permit the timely and appropriate
completion of tasks commonly found in work settings.”
(Tr. 17). The ALJ found the following Residual Functional
[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform
light work . . . except that [Plaintiff] should avoid
climbing ladders, ropes, scaffolding, and hazards; can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs; should avoid
concentrated exposure to cold, vibrations, dusts, odors,
gases, and fumes; and the claimant is limited to performing
simple, routine work with simple instructions.
examining the administrative record, including the medical
records, the ALJ's decision, the hearing transcript, and
the briefing, the Court concludes that the ALJ's
determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the
record as a whole. The Court believes the ALJ improperly
injected her own interpretation of the medical records into
the decision and failed to properly support her conclusions
with medical evidence. Additionally, the ALJ did not fully
justify her decision to discredit Plaintiff's subjective
claims of limitations.
medical records presented do not provide sufficient medical
evidence to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ
must order additional medical examinations or tests to
supplement the record. McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d
605, 612 (8th Cir. 2011). This remains true even if the
claimant is represented by counsel. Snead v.
Barnhart, 360 F.3d 834, 838 (8th Cir. 2004).
not improper for the ALJ to formulate her own conclusions
based on the evidence. Indeed, that is the ALJ's primary
role. However, the evidence must be sufficient in order to
allow those conclusions to be drawn.
particular concern to the Court is the ALJ's decision to
summarily conclude that Plaintiff's mental impairments
“suggest that the [Plaintiff] does experience symptoms
which cause some limitations, they do not suggest that he is
incapable of performing any work.” (Tr. 21). The ALJ
provided a brief discussion of Plaintiff's prior
treatment for his mental symptoms, but placed the primary
focus on Plaintiff's physical symptoms and treatment.
(Tr. 20). In August 2013, Plaintiff was referred by his
treating nurse practitioner to a psychiatrist for his
worsening mental symptoms. (Tr. 503-04). Plaintiff sought
treatment at Burrell Behavioral Health, and had an initial
psychiatric examination performed by Shirley Kolkmeyer, LPC,
on September 27, 2013. (Tr. 506). The diagnostic
impressions/conclusions indicated that Plaintiff suffered
from major depressive disorder, had recently broken up with
an abusive girlfriend, had low self-esteem and suicidal
ideations, but no plans or intent. (Tr. 516). The examiner
assigned Plaintiff a GAF score of 42 and recommended
individual therapy. (Tr. 514, 516). Plaintiff's
disability hearing was held less than one month later.
did not discuss any of these findings as part of her
decision, and simply injected her own impressions. The ALJ
discredited Plaintiff's claims partially because
“he has not sought the mental health treatment that one
might expect given these allegations, ” even though
Plaintiff had just begun the process of seeking proper mental
health treatment and the initial results demonstrated severe
mental challenges. (Tr. 21).
the general dearth of information specifically relating to
Plaintiff's ability to function in light of his mental
impairments and the initial impressions of Ms. Kolkmeyer, the
Court cannot conclude that substantial evidence exists in the
record that supports the ALJ's decision. The ALJ should
have ordered a ...