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Rhodes v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

October 31, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Tina M. Rhodes seeks review of Defendant's decision denying her claim under Title XVI of the Social Security Act for Supplemental Security Income benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On September 8, 2015, at the age of 23, Ms. Rhodes filed for Supplemental Security Income benefits, alleging an onset date of December 21, 2010, which was later amended at the hearing to the date of application, September 8, 2015. Tr. 17.

         The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded after a hearing that Ms. Rhodes had the following severe impairments: pain syndrome, degenerative disc disease, asthma, sphincter of Oddi dysfunction, migraines, and mental disorders variously diagnosed as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Tr. 20. The ALJ found that Ms. Rhodes had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b), with the following exceptions:

She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps but never ladders or scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She cannot perform jobs in bright light, further defined as stage lighting, strobe lighting, paint booth lighting, and bright sunlight. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and heat, wetness, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, level 5 noise, and vibrations, further defining vibrations as performing jobs such as operating jackhammers and other equipment where the operator is significantly vibrated. She must avoid all exposure to hazards of heights and machinery. She can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and non-detailed tasks, further defined as SVP 2 work and below. She can respond appropriately to supervisors and coworkers in a task-oriented setting where contact with others, including the public, is infrequent. She can adapt to routine/simple work changes. She can perform repetitive work according to set procedures, sequence, or pace.

Tr. 23. Based on the testimony of the vocational expert (VE), the ALJ concluded that given Ms. Rhodes' RFC, she would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as a small products assembler or electrical accessory assembler. Tr. 29. Therefore, the ALJ determined Ms. Rhodes was able to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and was not “disabled” as defined by the Social Security Act. Tr. 30. The ALJ's decision, as the final decision by the Commissioner, is subject to judicial review.


         In reviewing the Commissioner's denial of benefits, the Court considers whether “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the ALJ's decision.” Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015). “Substantial evidence” is less than a preponderance but enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the ALJ's conclusion. Id. The Court must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the ALJ's decision. Id. “[A]s long as substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner's decision, [the Court] may not reverse it because substantial evidence also exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because [the Court] would have decided the case differently.” Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court must “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration.” Michel v. Colvin, 640 Fed.Appx. 585, 592 (8th Cir. 2016) (quotation marks and citations omitted).


         Ms. Rhodes' arguments concern the ALJ's decisions at two different stages of the five-step sequential evaluation. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. First, Ms. Rhodes challenges the ALJ's determination prior to the fourth step regarding determination of the RFC. Second, Ms. Rhodes challenges the determination at the fifth and final step of the sequential evaluation process, arguing the Commissioner failed to meet the burden of proof of establishing that Ms. Rhodes could perform the duties of the positions identified by the VE.

         a. Whether the RFC as to Ms. Rhodes' physical impairments is supported by substantial evidence

         A claimant's RFC is the most she can do despite her limitations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ may formulate the RFC based not only on medical evidence, but also on other relevant, credible evidence of record, though some medical evidence is required. Perks v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1092 (8th Cir. 2012). “Although it is the ALJ's responsibility to determine the claimant's RFC, the burden is on the claimant to establish his or her RFC.” Buford v. Colvin, 824 F.3d 793, 796 (8th Cir. 2016) (citations omitted).

         i. Medical opinion as to functional limitations

         Ms. Rhodes argues that while the ALJ acknowledged her multiple “severe” physical impairments, there are no medical opinions of record as to the functional limitations stemming from those physical impairments and that the ALJ thus had a duty to develop the record fully by obtaining a medical opinion rather than relying on his own medical expertise. Doc. 12, p. 30.

         While an ALJ is not limited to considering only medical evidence, there must be at least “‘some medical evidence of the claimant's ability to function the workplace.'” Perks, 687 F.3d at 1092 (quoting Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 619 (8th Cir. 2007)). “Some medical evidence, however, need not include any medical opinions that address a plaintiff's ability to function in the workplace. Instead, mild or unremarkable objective medical findings and other medical evidence may constitute sufficient medical support for an RFC finding, even in the absence of any medical opinion evidence directly addressing the Plaintiff's ability to function in the workplace.” Perfater v. Berryhill, No. 4:17-CV-00722-NKL, 2018 WL 3037427, at *3 (W.D. Mo. June 19, 2018) (internal quotations omitted).

         Here, it is undisputed that there is no medical opinion of record as to Ms. Rhodes' physical limitations. Therefore, the question is whether the medical evidence that does exist in the record is sufficient to support Ms. Rhodes' RFC.

         The ALJ reviewed hundreds of pages of Ms. Rhodes' medical history from her treating and examining physicians. For example, the ALJ noted that in September 2015, Ms. Rhodes saw a neurologist for headaches. Tr. 24-25. She had stopped using Topiramate because she believed it caused her chest pain, but Excedrin was providing some relief. Id. At that appointment, the record noted that she was alert and oriented to person, place, and time; that her recent and remote memory were fair; that her speech and language functions were intact; and that she had full strength, intact sensation, and normal gait. Tr. 318-19. In December 2015, when Ms. Rhodes presented with having a continuous headache for the last month with sensitivity to light, sound, and movement, an examination also revealed that despite her apparent considerable pain, she was alert and oriented to place and time, with full strength, and a gait that was “somewhat slow.” Tr. 708. At a January 2016 appointment, Ms. Rhodes reported daily headaches, but an examination indicated no acute distress and noted she was alert, oriented to person, place, and date, and able to follow and perform multi-step commands. Tr. 733-737. Over the next year, Ms. Rhodes continued to present with migraine symptoms, and in addition to diagnosing migraines and prescribing treatment, the medical examination reveals similar results with respect to alertness, memory function, speech function, motor skills, and gait. See, e.g., Tr. 964-74, 1308-13, 1383-85, 1406, 1416-17.

         The ALJ also reviewed the effectiveness of her treatments. At her January 2016 appointment, Ms. Rhodes was given Botox injections, and she stated at her February 2016 appointment that she believed these were helpful. Tr. 740. She received the same injections again in April, Tr. 1408, and an occipital nerve block treatment in January 2017 which she also stated was helpful ...

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