United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
DARREN E. SMITH, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S
Darren E. Smith petitions for review of an adverse decision
by Defendant Andrew M. Saul, the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security. Plaintiff applied for disability benefits
under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§§ 401-34. The Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) found that although Plaintiff had several
severe impairments, he retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of
sedentary work. After carefully reviewing the parties'
arguments and the administrative record, the Court finds that
the ALJ committed no clear error and that substantial
evidence supports his opinion. The Commissioner's
decision is therefore AFFIRMED.
complete facts and arguments are presented in the
parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent
necessary. Plaintiff filed her application for disability
benefits on December 23, 2015, alleging a disability onset
date of September 15 of that year. The Commissioner denied
the application at the initial-claim level, and Plaintiff
appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ issued an unfavorable
decision, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review, leaving the ALJ's ruling as the
Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted
all administrative remedies, so judicial review is now
appropriate. See 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 enough that a reasonable mind
would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's
decision. Id. In making this assessment, a court
considers evidence that supports and detracts from the
Commissioner's decision. Id. A court must
“defer heavily” to the Commissioner's
findings and conclusions, Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d
847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015), and may reverse the
Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the
available zone of choice. Buckner v. Astrue, 646
F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011). A decision is not outside this
zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate
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 challenges the ALJ's
determination at step four, where he found that Plaintiff
retained the RFC to perform a limited range of sedentary
work. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by deciding
his RFC without (1) medical evidence expressly addressing his
physical limitations, (2) a discussion of his obesity, and
(3) an analysis of his depression.
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC
claimant's RFC is the most he can do despite his physical
and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). An ALJ
decides a claimant's RFC based on all relevant evidence,
id., including medical records, physicians'
opinions, and the claimant's description of his
limitations. Dunahoo v. Apfel, 241 F.3d 1033, 1039
(8th Cir. 2001). Because a claimant's RFC is a medical
question, it must be supported by “some medical
evidence of [his] ability to function in a workplace.”
Hensley v. Colvin, 829 F.3d 926, 932 (8th Cir.
2016). However, it is ultimately an administrative decision
reserved to the Commissioner, 20 C.F.R. § 416.946, who
need not base it on a specific medical opinion or, for that
matter, any medical opinion. Hensley, 826 F.3d at
932 (citations omitted); Stringer v. Berryhill, 700
Fed.Appx. 566, 567 (8th Cir. 2017) (finding that substantial
evidence supported the ALJ's RFC assessment even without
any corroborating medical opinion).
medical evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination
that Plaintiff could perform a limited range of sedentary
work. Treatment records show that while Plaintiff suffered
from severe orthopedic impairments, including avascular
necrosis and degenerative joint disease, he responded well to
surgery. For example, in September 2015 Plaintiff underwent
left-hip core decompression due to pain in his left hip. R.
at 389, 406-08. The procedure significantly improved his
condition and largely controlled his pain. R. at 422. A
December examination reported that his motor strength was 5/5
throughout his lower extremities and that the range of motion
of his hip and ankle was without discomfort. R. at 451-52.
Surgery also addressed Plaintiff's pain in his left knee.
R. at 453-54, 490. Plaintiff later injured his left hip and
right knee while shoveling snow, but knee arthroscopy and a
hip replacement proved effective. R. at 490-91, 496-97, 499,
527, 608. His physician reported that his knee had a full
range of motion and that he had no mechanical signs,
ligamentous laxity, or joint-line pain. R. at 608. Plaintiff
also experienced wrist pain while driving, which was
conservatively treated with gel and a brace. R. at 597-99,
680. He reported increasing pain in his right hip, R. at 91,
130, but, following right-hip core decompression, was
reportedly “doing well, ” not taking pain
medications, and ambulating with a cane. R. at 81, 84.
also noted that although Plaintiff testified that he does
little more than lie down most of the day, no doctor had
advised him to do so. R. at 17, 311. Granted, when told about
Plaintiff's intent to pursue disability, one doctor
stated that “he may be disabled from a labor-type
field.” R. at 497. But the ALJ excluded exertional work
from Plaintiff's RFC assessment, and, as the ALJ
correctly observed, the inability to perform labor-intensive
work does not qualify one as disabled under the Social
Security Act. R. at 14, 16. Rather, a claimant must be unable
to perform any other work. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(g). A different doctor later opined that Plaintiff
lacked the capacity to work due to the pain in his left hip.
R. at 116-17. This conclusion predated Plaintiff's hip
replacement, however, which controlled his left-hip pain and
allowed him, for a time, at least, to mobilize without a
cane. R. at 91.
Plaintiff continued to regularly drink and smoke, despite
physicians' repeated warnings that such behavior
exacerbates the symptoms of avascular necrosis. See,
e.g., R. at 564, 602, 612, 620, 629, and 648. The ALJ
properly factored this into his analysis, since
“[failing] to follow a prescribed course of remedial
treatment without good reason is grounds for denying an
application an application for benefits.” Kisling
v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1255, 125 (8th Cir. 1997); see
also Mouser v. Astrue, 545 F.3d 634, 638 (8th Cir. 2008)
(finding that the ALJ appropriately considered the
claimant's failure to stop smoking where it directly
impacted the severity of his impairments). Thus, considering
the record as a whole, the Court finds the ALJ's RFC
determination supported by substantial evidence, including
Plaintiff's extensive medical records. See Dykes v.
Apfel, 223 F.3d 865, 866 (8th Cir. 2000) (“To the
extent [claimant] is arguing that residual functional
capacity may be proved only by medical evidence, we
The ALJ sufficiently considered ...