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Troxel v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

April 1, 2014

ROY TROXEL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW

JON STUART SCOLES, Chief Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 3) filed by Plaintiff Roy Troxel on June 5, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny his application for Title II disability insurance benefits. Troxel asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide him disability insurance benefits. In the alternative, Troxel requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On June 4, 2010, Troxel applied for disability insurance benefits. In his application, Troxel alleged an inability to work since January 15, 2010 due to uncontrolled blood pressure problems. Troxel's application was denied on June 30, 2010. On September 1, 2010, his application was denied on reconsideration. On October 7, 2010, Troxel requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On November 4, 2011, Troxel appeared via video conference with his attorney before ALJ Eric S. Basse for an administrative hearing. Troxel and vocational expert Elizabeth M. Albrecht testified at the hearing. In a decision dated January 26, 2012, the ALJ denied Troxel's claim. The ALJ determined that Troxel was not disabled and not entitled to disability insurance benefits because he was functionally capable of performing his past relevant work as a production assembler. Troxel appealed the ALJ's decision. On April 26, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Troxel's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's January 26, 2012 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.

On June 5, 2013, Troxel filed this action for judicial review. The Commissioner filed an Answer on August 5, 2013. On October 11, 2013, Troxel filed a brief arguing that there is no substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's finding that he is not disabled and that he is functionally capable of performing his past relevant work as a production assembler. On December 11, 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 December 18, 2013, Troxel filed a reply brief. On August 16, 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). 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).").

IV. FACTS

A. Troxel's Education and Employment Background

Troxel was born in 1959. He graduated from high school. While in school, he took special education classes. Following high school, Troxel worked for many years at the Maytag Company as an unskilled assembler.

The record contains a detailed earnings report for Troxel. The report covers the time period from 1973 to 2011. Prior to 1976, Troxel had minimal earnings (less than $1, 000). From 1976 to 1981, Troxel earned between $2, 504.34 (1976) and $10, 716.65 (1981). He had no earnings in 1982. From 1983 to 2009, Troxel earned between $5, 115.72 (1985) and $35, 411.29 (2003). He has no earnings since 2010.

B. Administrative Hearing Testimony

1. Troxel's Testimony

At the administrative hearing, the ALJ asked Troxel about his academic skills. Specifically, the ALJ inquired whether Troxel has difficulty making change or adding and subtracting. Troxel replied that if he writes the numbers down, he can add and subtract. The ALJ also inquired about Troxel's ability to read. According to Troxel, he is capable of reading the newspaper "once and awhile, " and reading mystery books "once in a great while."

Next, the ALJ asked Troxel to discuss his difficulties with his left shoulder and left hand:

Q:... Do you still have problems with your left arm?
A: Yes.
Q: And what is that like?
A: Every time at nights, when I'm sleeping, it - you know, once it'll wake me up because there's a big old throbbing, like somebody stabbed me or something.
Q: What about during the day?
A: [Yes] during the day, too. And I have to kind of move my arm around and stuff.
Q: Do you have any problems using your left arm for reaching or grabbing things like boxes, or, you know, food out of the refrigerator, or, I don't know, tools, or something like that?
A: As long as I don't have to reach above my head, I'll be able to - I'm all right, there.
Q: Do you have any problems holding onto things with your left hand - I don't know, a glass, or bowl, or something?
A: Yes.
Q: What happens?
A: I go to pick it up just so far and it just slides out of ...

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