United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division
ORDER REMANDING THE COMMISSIONER'S
KAYS, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
action seeks judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security's (“the Commissioner”)
decision denying Plaintiff Vicki Lynn Bossi's application
for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title
II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42
U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had severe impairments of
degenerative disk disease, fibromyalgia, obesity, and degen
joint disease in both knees, but she retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform past work
as an administrative assistant.
carefully reviewing the record and the parties'
arguments, the Court finds the ALJ's opinion is not
supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.
The Court REMANDS this case to the Commissioner for further
proceedings consistent with this opinion.
and Factual Background
complete facts and arguments are presented in the
parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent
filed her application on August 3, 2015, alleging a
disability onset date of February 7, 2015, which she later
amended to February 7, 2014. 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 16, 2017, issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not
disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review on April 30, 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. §§ 405(g) and
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. §
argues the ALJ erred at Step Four in finding she could
perform sedentary work because sedentary work entails being
able to sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. Social
Security Ruling (SSR) 96-9P, 1996 WL 374185, at *3 (noting
sedentary work generally requires sitting a total of six
hours in an eight-hour workday). More specifically, she
contends the ALJ erred by not giving more weight to the
opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Randall Halley, D.O.,
and the examining physician, Dr. John Woodward, M.D., who
opined that Plaintiff could sit for only one hour a day and
two hours a day, respectively.
gave “little weight” to Dr. Halley's opinions
because they appeared to be based heavily upon
Plaintiff's self-reported symptoms, as opposed to
objective medical evidence, and because they were
inconsistent with his own treatment notes. R. at 21. This
portion of the ALJ's decision is supported by the record
and the law. See Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098,
1104 (8th Cir. 2014) (holding the ALJ may give less weigh to
a treating physician's opinion that is based largely on
the claimant's subjective complaints rather than
objective medical evidence); Davidson v. Astrue, 578
F.3d 838, 842 (8th Cir. 2009) (affirming the ALJ's
decision to discount a treating doctor's opinion because
it was inconsistent with his treatment notes).
ALJ's decision to give limited weight to the examining
physician's opinion that Plaintiff could only sit for two
hours a day, however, is problematic. The ALJ concluded
Plaintiff “has the ability to sit for longer than two
hours in an eight-hour workday” based upon Dr.
Woodward's examination findings that she had “an
ability to sit comfortably, ” lacked muscle spasms at
the lumbar musculature, and had intact coordination and
reflexes with no tremor. R. at 20-21. But Dr. Woodward did
not write that Plaintiff could sit “comfortably.”
R. at 368-76.
appears to be a potentially significant error: while it is
Plaintiff's burden to establish her RFC, Materson v.
Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 737 (8th Cir. 2004), this burden
would be satisfied if the ALJ had not discounted that portion
of Dr. Woodward's report opining Plaintiff could sit for
only two hours a day. It is unclear to the Court how
Plaintiff's lack of muscle spasms and intact coordination
and reflexes without tremor justifies discounting Dr.
Woodward's opinion. And another medical professional,
examining psychologist, Dr. David Lutz, Ph.D., noted during
his examination that Plaintiff appeared to be in
“considerable physical discomfort.” R. at 381.
There is ...