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Trucks v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

December 22, 2016

JASON TRUCKS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Jason Trucks (“Plaintiff”) seeks review of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) decision denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Social Security Income under the Social Security Act.[1] Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiff's applications.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In November 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Social Security Income pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 132-46). Plaintiff alleged he was disabled as of June 23, 2011[2] as a result of degenerative disc disease and “bipolar condition.” (Tr. 180-84) The SSA denied Plaintiff's claims, and he filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 82-86, 90-94).

         The SSA granted Plaintiff's request for review, and an ALJ conducted a hearing on July 22, 2013. (Tr. 95-99, 34-71). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he and his ex-wife shared custody of their three children and he currently lived with his girlfriend of three years. (Tr. 37, 40). Plaintiff testified that he “used to be an alcoholic” but stopped drinking “[a]bout three years ago when me and my fiance got together.” (Tr. 43). Upon further questioning by the ALJ, Plaintiff conceded, “I still occasionally drink. I do like one or two beers every like six months with a friend.” (Tr. 43-44). Plaintiff believed he was disabled as a result of back pain, explaining, “There's days when I can't even get out of bed.” (Tr. 44, 48). Plaintiff testified that he required assistance to bathe and dress, used an electric scooter when shopping, could stand no longer than fifteen to twenty minutes, did not do housework, and had difficulty with balance. (Tr. 48, 52-54). He attributed his muscular physique to genetics. (Tr. 44).

         In regard to his bipolar disorder, Plaintiff testified that he had “lost several jobs because of manic episodes on the job.” (Tr. 45). He described incidents in which he “flipped out, ” explaining that he “tend[ed] to say and do things that I don't mean or don't realize that I'm saying or doing while it's happening.” (Tr.45-46). Plaintiff stated that the skills and techniques he learned through counseling “don't work.” (Tr. 47). He was currently taking lithium for his mental health. (Tr. 51).

         A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 57-70). The ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical individual of Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, capable of light exertional work with the following limitations: never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally stoop, crouch, and crawl. (Tr. 64-65). The ALJ added that the hypothetical individual was limited to “low stress, which is defined as only occasional decision making and occasional changes in the work setting; and only occasional interaction with the public, co-workers or supervisors.” (Tr. 65). The vocational expert testified that such individual could not perform Plaintiff's past relevant work as a fast food worker, formulator, or yard coupler. (Tr. 65). However, she stated the individual could perform other jobs in significant number in the national economy, including housekeeping, routing clerk, and merchandise marker. (Tr. 65-66).

         In a decision dated November 20, 2013, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920[3] and found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from June 23, 2011 through the date of this decision[.]” (Tr. 12-26). The ALJ found that Plaintiff, who was twenty-four years of age on the alleged date of onset, had the severe impairments of “mild degenerative disc disease and a bipolar affective disorder.” (Tr. 14).

         After reviewing Plaintiff's testimony and medical records and finding that Plaintiff was “not overly credible, ” the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to “perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except he should never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds, but is able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.” (Tr. 17). The ALJ further limited Plaintiff to “low stress jobs, with ‘low stress' defined as only occasional decision-making and occasional changes in the work setting” and “jobs with only occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors and the public.” (Id. at 17, 24). Finally, the ALJ held that, although Plaintiff was not able to return to any of his past work, “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform[.]” (Tr. 24-25). Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of housekeeper/cleaner, routing clerk, merchandise marker, parking lot attendant, and document preparer. (Tr. 25).

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on March 25, 2015. (Tr. 6-8, 1-5). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion.'” Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1323 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Boerst v. Shalala, 2 F.3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). However, a court “do[es] not reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ and [it] defer[s] to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reason and substantial evidence.” Renstrue v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)).

         “If, after reviewing the record, the court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision.” Partee v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005)). The Eighth Circuit has repeatedly held that a court should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions” of the Social Security Administration. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff claims that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's determination that he was not disabled. More specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in: (1) finding Plaintiff's subjective allegations of disabling pain not credible; and (2) discounting the opinion of examining psychologist, Dr. Joseph Long, when formulating Plaintiff's mental RFC.[4] The Commissioner counters that the ALJ properly found Plaintiff's subjective allegations of pain not credible and created a mental RFC based upon substantial evidence of record.

         A. Credibility

         Plaintiff argues that there was “no substantial evidentiary basis” for the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's subjective allegations of pain were not credible. (ECF No. 16 at 9). In response, the Commissioner asserts that the ALJ “articulated multiple valid reasons for ...

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