United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S
action seeks judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security's (“the Commissioner”)
decision denying Plaintiff James Walker's application for
supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act
(“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.
The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found
Plaintiff had severe impairments of schizoaffective disorder,
posttraumatic stress disorder, and alcohol and cannabis
abuse, but retained the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to be employed as a laundry worker,
kitchen helper, and industrial cleaner.
carefully reviewing the record and the parties'
arguments, the Court finds the ALJ's opinion is supported
by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The
Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
and Factual Background
complete facts and arguments are presented in the
parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent
filed his latest application for benefits on April 14, 2016,
alleging a disability onset date of December 9, 2013. The
Commissioner denied the application at the initial claim
level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ
held a hearing and, on October 23, 2017, issued a decision
finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council
denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 18, 2018,
leaving 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. § 1383(c)(3).
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. Chaney v. Colvin,
812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016). Substantial evidence is
less than a preponderance, but is 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. Id. The court must “defer
heavily” to the Commissioner's findings and
conclusions. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852
(8th Cir. 2015). The court may reverse the Commissioner's
decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of
choice; a decision is not outside this zone simply because
the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner
v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).
Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation
process to determine 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 at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to
properly develop the medical evidence of record, and that the
appeals council erred by failing to consider new evidence
that was material to the decision.
support of his first argument, Plaintiff notes he was
unrepresented at the administrative hearing, but his
caseworker testified that he had recently received
psychiatric treatment as well as treatment for chest pains,
and the last medical record the ALJ had before him was
approximately fourteen months old. Given all this, the ALJ
should have known that additional medical records existed
that he did not have. By failing to attempt to obtain these
records, the ALJ failed to fulfill his duty to fully and
fairly develop the record.
well-settled that an ALJ has a “responsibility to
develop the record fairly and fully, independent of the
claimant's burden to press his case.” Snead v.
Barnhart, 360 F.3d 834, 838 (8th Cir. 2004). But this
duty is triggered only when a crucial issue is undeveloped
and the evidence is insufficient to allow the ALJ to form an
opinion. Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 926-27
(8th Cir. 2011). Ultimately, the claimant bears the burden of
proving his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a)
(“In general, you have to prove to us that you are
blind or disabled. You must inform us about or submit all
evidence known to you that relates to whether or not you are
blind or disabled.”).
It is a
close call whether the ALJ adequately developed the record.
The Court does not have to resolve this question, however,
because after the ALJ issued his decision, Plaintiff
submitted voluminous new evidence to the Appeals Council. And
once the Appeals Council has reviewed newly submitted
evidence, a district court's review is limited to
determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by
substantial evidence on the whole, including new evidence
submitted after the decision was made. Davidson v.
Astrue, 501 F.3d 987, 990 (8th Cir. 2007) (“Where,
as here, the Appeals Council considers new evidence but
denies review, we must determine whether the ALJ's
decision was supported by substantial evidence on the record
as a whole, including the new evidence.”).
reviewing this evidence, the Court holds it does not change
the outcome because it reinforces the ALJ's finding that
Plaintiff's testimony concerning the severity of his
symptoms was not consistent with the evidence in the record.
R. at 93-98. The new evidence reiterates that Plaintiff
received minimal and intermittent treatment; Plaintiff's
symptoms would have improved if he were compliant with his
doctors' instructions concerning treatment;
Plaintiff's extensive activities ...