United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
JANET L. LUCK, 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 1) filed by Plaintiff Janet L. Luck on April 4, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her application for Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Luck asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide her SSI benefits. In the alternative, Luck requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.
II. PRIOR PROCEEDINGS
On December 10, 2009, Luck applied for SSI benefits. In her application, Luck alleged an inability to work since July 31, 2007 due to alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorder ("OCD"), bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), right hand problems, and seizures. Luck's application was denied on January 26, 2010. On July 9, 2010, her application was denied on reconsideration. On September 21, 2010, Luck requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On December 8, 2011, Luck appeared via video conference with her attorney before ALJ Julie K. Bruntz for an administrative hearing. Luck and vocational expert Carma A. Mitchell testified at the hearing. In a decision dated March 5, 2012, the ALJ denied Luck's claim. The ALJ determined that Luck was not disabled and not entitled to SSI benefits because she was functionally capable of performing her past work as a housekeeper or cleaner. Luck appealed the ALJ's decision. On February 4, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Luck's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's March 5, 2012 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.
On April 4, 2013, Luck filed this action for judicial review. The Commissioner filed an Answer on July 22, 2013. On August 28, 2013, Luck 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 housekeeper or cleaner. On December 6, 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 June 18, 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
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). 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, 393 F.3d at 801 (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. Luck's Education and Employment Background
Luck was born in 1959. She completed the tenth grade in school. Luck stated that she dropped out of school sometime during her eleventh grade year. Later, Luck earned her GED. While in school, Luck participated in special education classes.
The record contains a detailed earnings report for Luck. The report covers the time period from 1981 to 2011. Prior to 2002, Luck had minimal earnings. She earned $60.00 in 1981. From 1982 to 1990, she had no earnings. In 1991, she earned $265.18. She, again, had no earnings in 1992. From 1993 to 1996, Luck earned between $147.00 (1996) and $1, 043.91 (1995). She had no earnings from 1997 to 2001. From 2002 to 2007, Luck earned between $4, 809.00 (2007) and $13, 028.97 (2005). She has no reported earnings since 2008.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Luck's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, Luck's attorney asked Luck why she believed she was disabled and unable to work. Luck responded that in 2006 and 2007 she was "really" depressed and "kind of through [ sic ] in the towel and gave up[.]" Luck elaborated further, stating that she was "[v]ery depressed, extremely depressed, overwhelmed and I didn't feel like I could take it no more. I just kind of blanked out and let things go, and let myself go."
Next, Luck's attorney questioned Luck about her difficulties with alcohol abuse:
Q: And are you a binge drinker? Are you a constant drinker? What is your -
A: I'm a binge drinker. I'll drink. I'll stop. I'll better my life. I'll start, you know, making an effort to do things again; to work, to keep busy, and then I'll go into a depression and I'll go back, and then pretty soon I'm drinking again.
Q: Okay, and then you just keep drinking? Do you drink every day then when you're in the depression?
A: When in a depression there's times that I can drink for days, then I'll get sick; stop. There's many times I put myself in the hospital to stop.
(Administrative Record 36.) At the time of the hearing, Luck testified that except for one incident, where she drank Brandy, she had been sober for three or four months. She attributed her sobriety to participation in an outpatient alcohol recovery program. Luck's attorney asked Luck why she drinks alcohol. Luck answered that she drinks because of depression. Specifically, she stated that:
I get depressed, and I get really sad, and I don't know why. I can't explain it, and I feel like if I drink it'll take the pain away, but it doesn't. It intensifies it and I end up getting myself in trouble or tearing my health down.
(Administrative Record at 38.) Lastly, Luck explained that during her periods of employment, she generally did not drink alcohol. She stated that not only was she a better worker when she didn't drink, but that she "can't work and drink."
Luck's attorney also inquired about Luck's physical health problems. According to Luck, her only physical problem was nerve damage from a severe cut on her arm and hand. Luck stated that as a result, she has difficulty picking up small objects. She also testified that it would be difficult for her to perform tasks requiring the use of both of her hands.
Luck's attorney further inquired about Luck's mental health difficulties. Luck stated that she suffers from depression and OCD. Luck's attorney asked Luck how OCD affected her ability to work. Luck replied:
Because it stands in the way. It takes me longer. It's frustrating because the things that goes through my head, and you know, even at home it takes out a lot of time for me to get ready because everything's got to be so so. I got to check the door knobs. I got to check the stove. I got to lock the door God knows how many times. Make sure I got my key. Lock it, unlock it.
(Administrative Record at 47.) Additionally, Luck indicated that she has difficulty concentrating due to her OCD problems. Luck further testified that she has memory problems. Specifically, she stated that she has difficulty remembering things that happened recently. She also stated that she has difficulty remembering to keep appointments and other similar things in order.
Lastly, Luck testified that at the time of the hearing, she was working a few hours a day, several days a week, doing odd jobs to earn money for living expenses. The ALJ and Luck had the following colloquy regarding her job:
Q:... How long have you been working?
A: Just a couple of months now.
Q: And how much do you make?
A: $9.00 an hour, but I work about three hours a day to ...