United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
STACIE L. JONES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
JON STUART SCOLES, Chief Magistrate Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 3) filed by Plaintiff Stacie L. Jones on April 15, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her applications for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Jones asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide her disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits. In the alternative, Jones requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.
II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
On January 5, 2010, Jones applied for disability insurance benefits. The following day, on January 6, she applied for SSI benefits. In both applications, Jones alleged an inability to work since January 1, 2008 due to back problems, esophageal problems, and bowel problems. Jones' applications were denied on February 9, 2010. On October 6, 2010, her applications were denied on reconsideration. On November 9, 2010, Jones requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On January 23, 2012, Jones appeared via video conference with her attorney before ALJ John E. Sandbothe for an administrative hearing. Jones and vocational expert Melinda Stahr testified at the hearing. In a decision dated February 10, 2012, the ALJ denied Jones' claims. The ALJ determined that Jones was not disabled and not entitled to disability insurance benefits or SSI benefits because she was functionally capable of performing her past relevant work as a checker or cleaner. Jones appealed the ALJ's decision. On February 12, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Jones' request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's February 12, 2012 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.
On April 15, 2013, Jones filed this action for judicial review. The Commissioner filed an Answer on August 7, 2013. On September 6, 2013, Jones filed a brief arguing that there is not substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's finding that she is not disabled and that she is functionally capable of performing her past relevant work as a checker or cleaner. On October 31, 2013, the Commissioner filed a responsive brief arguing that the ALJ's decision was correct and asking the Court to affirm the ALJ's decision. On July 1, 2013, both parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge in this matter pursuant to the provisions set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
III. PRINCIPLES OF REVIEW
Title 42, United States Code, Section 405(g) provides that the Commissioner's final determination following an administrative hearing not to award disability insurance benefits is subject to judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), the Commissioner's final determination after an administrative hearing not to award SSI benefits is subject to judicial review to the same extent as provided in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides the Court with the power to: "[E]nter... a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner... with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "The findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive..." Id.
The Court will "affirm the Commissioner's decision if supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence is defined as "less than a preponderance but... enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion.'" Id. (quoting Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 968 (8th Cir. 2010)); see also Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1063 (8th Cir. 2010) ("Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a decision but is less than a preponderance.").
In determining whether the ALJ's decision meets this standard, the Court considers "all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but it [does] not re-weigh the evidence." Vester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The Court not only considers the evidence which supports the ALJ's decision, but also the evidence that detracts from his or her decision. Perks v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1091 (8th Cir. 2012); see also Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007) (Review of an ALJ's decision "extends beyond examining the record to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's decision; [the court must also] consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from that decision."). In Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals explained this standard as follows:
This standard is something less than the weight of the evidence and it allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of choice within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant or deny benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal.'
Id. (quoting Turley v. Sullivan, 939 F.2d 524, 528 (8th Cir. 1991), in turn quoting Bland v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 533, 535 (8th Cir. 1988)). In Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549 (8th Cir. 2011), the Eighth Circuit further explained that a court "will not disturb the denial of benefits so long as the ALJ's decision falls within the available zone of choice.'" Id. at 556 (quoting Bradley v. Astrue, 528 F.3d 1113, 1115 (8th Cir. 2008)). "An ALJ's decision is not outside that zone of choice simply because [a court] might have reached a different conclusion had [the court] been the initial finder of fact.'" Id. Therefore, "even if inconsistent conclusions may be drawn from the evidence, the agency's decision will be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Chamberlain v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 1489, 1493 (8th Cir. 1995)); see also Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010) ("If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, we will not reverse the decision merely because substantial evidence would have also supported a contrary outcome, or because we would have decided differently."); Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 522 (8th Cir. 2009) ("If there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusion, we may not reverse even though there may also be substantial evidence to support the opposite conclusion.' Clay v. Barnhart, 417 F.3d 922, 928 (8th Cir. 2005).").
A. Jones' Education and Employment Background
Jones was born in 1979. She completed the eighth grade. At the administrative hearing, Jones testified that she got "really bad" grades and school "wasn't [her] thing." She stated that she received help in the resource room with reading because she has difficulty comprehending information that she reads. However, in response to questioning from the ALJ, Jones stated that she could perform basic mathematic equations.
The record contains a detailed earnings report for Jones. The report covers the time period of 1993 to 2011. In 1995, Jones earned $2, 276.88, but only earned $32.50 in 1996. From 1997 to 2009, she earned between $1, 118.06 (2002) and $20, 085.62 (2004). She has no earnings since 2010.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Jones' Testimony
At the administrative hearing, Jones' attorney asked Jones, of all her various health difficulties, which one affected her the most. Jones replied that heart problems and chronic pain affected her the most. She indicated that her chronic pain consisted of joint, muscle, and abdominal pain. Jones' attorney inquired how Jones' heart condition affected her ability to function. Jones explained that "I am so tired. There [are] days I don't even feel like crawling out of bed. I get anxiety when I try to go to sleep at night because I'm not sure if I'm going to wake up."
Next, Jones' attorney asked Jones to discuss her mental health difficulties. Jones testified that she suffers from depression and anxiety. According to Jones, her depression causes her to become "really fatigued. I ache. I get blue. I'll start crying for no apparent reason, or I get tempered easily and I yell." Jones stated that she has been prescribed Wellbutrin and Trazodone. She indicated that "[i]f I miss a dose, I become angered easily and very moody."
Jones' attorney also inquired about Jones' living arrangements and daily activities:
Q: Okay. And you live with a number of people, don't you?
A: Yes. I live with my mother and my sister and my kids. And, which, my mother, she helps me out a lot.
Q: What's she have to help you with?
A: She does, mainly - she does the cleaning and the cooking most of the time. I try to help her because I feel useless. I feel helpless. So I try to help her out, but if I try to do dishes and I'm standing at the sink, I get sharp severe pain in my lower back to where I'm in tears. So I have to take several breaks throughout.
(Administrative Record at 43-44.) Jones' attorney also questioned Jones about her functional abilities:
Q: Okay. So with the combination of all your problems, do you have problems with concentration, paying attention, focusing? Is that hard for you? Can you sit down and watch a half-hour TV show?
A: No, I ...