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Miller v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division

May 5, 2014

STEVEN W. MILLER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JON STUART SCOLES, Chief Magistrate Judge.


This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 3) filed by Plaintiff Steven W. Miller on April 16, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny his application for Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Miller asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide SSI benefits. In the alternative, Miller requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.


On December 3, 2010, Miller protectively filed an application for SSI benefits.[1] In his application, Miller alleged an inability to work since April 1, 2009 due to diabetes, anxiety, depression, and arm, neck, and back pain.[2] Miller's application was denied on May 16, 2011. On August 16, 2011, his application was denied on reconsideration. On September 2, 2011, Miller requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On November 29, 2012, Miller appeared via video conference with his attorney before ALJ John E. Sandbothe for an administrative hearing. Miller and vocational expert Melinda Stahr testified at the hearing. In a decision dated December 7, 2012, the ALJ denied Miller's claim. The ALJ determined that Miller was not disabled and not entitled to SSI benefits because if he stopped his substance use, he would be capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Miller appealed the ALJ's decision. On February 13, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Miller's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's December 7, 2012 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.

On April 16, 2013, Miller filed this action for judicial review. The Commissioner filed an Answer on August 12, 2013. On September 13, 2013, Miller filed a brief arguing that there is not substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's finding that he is not disabled and that he is functionally capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On December 12, 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 17, 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).


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. Miller's Education and Employment Background

Miller was born in 1969. He is a high school graduate. At the administrative hearing, Miller testified that he attended technical school after high school.

The record contains a detailed earnings report for Miller. From 1987 to 2000, Miller earned between $521.04 (1988) and $19, 783.14 (1998). He had no earnings in 2001. From 2002 to 2004, Miller earned $6, 017.65, $9, 034.36, and $4, 284.44, respectively. He, again, had no earnings from 2005 to 2008. In 2009 and 2010, he earned $11, 160.00 and $10, 269.00. Miller has no earnings since 2011.

B. Administrative Hearing Testimony

1. Miller's Testimony

At the administrative hearing, Miller's attorney asked Miller why he stopped working. Miller responded that he stopped working due to severe pain in his shoulder and back. Miller attributed his shoulder and back pain to heavy lifting involved with working for many years as an auto mechanic.

Next, Miller's attorney inquired about Miller's history of substance abuse. Miller testified that he had regularly used crack cocaine and methamphetamine in the past. He reported that his last use was during a relapse in March 2012, for which he sought treatment. Miller also stated that he regularly attends NA meeting about four times per week.

Miller's attorney also asked Miller to discuss his mental health difficulties. According to Miller, he suffers from depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Miller testified that his symptoms included, short-term memory problems, difficulty sleeping, mood problems, difficulty concentrating, and panic attacks.

2. Vocational Expert's Testimony

At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Melinda Stahr with a hypothetical for an individual who:

can lift 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently. He can only occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, or climb; no overhead reaching; no extremes of heat or cold; simple, routine, repetitive work; no contact with the public; regular pace.

(Administrative Record at 56-57.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Miller could not perform his past relevant work, but could perform the following jobs: (1) housekeeper (1, 600 positions in Iowa and 133, 000 positions in the nation), (2) small products assembler (1, 200 positions in Iowa and 21, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) folder (1, 800 positions in Iowa and 143, 000 positions in the nation). The ALJ asked a second hypothetical that was identical to the first hypothetical, except that the individual would "require two or more absences per month and a slow pace for up to one-third of the day[.]" The vocational expert responded that such limitations would preclude competitive employment.

C. Miller's Medical History

On February 12, 2010, Miller was referred by Disability Determination Services ("DDS") to Dr. Kyle P. Christianson, M.D., for a physical examination. Miller's chief complaints were left shoulder pain and low back pain. Miller also reported disturbed sleep due to his pain. Upon examination, Dr. Christianson noted that:

[Miller] states that he has no problems with lifting as a rule with his right arm or hand. He has limit to his left side to about 5 pounds. He states even a gallon of milk will cause more pain in his left shoulder. He is limited by his low back with prolonged standing but unable to give a good duration. He is more comfortable sitting with regards to his back. He is even more comfortable if he is able to lean back against something. He estimates ability to walk about a mile. Cold weather aggravates his left shoulder pain.

(Administrative Record at 402.) Dr. Christianson diagnosed Miller with shoulder joint pain, chronic lower back pain, and diabetes. X-rays of Miller's left shoulder and back were also taken as part of the evaluation. The results of the x-rays showed normal radiographic appearance of the left shoulder and stable radiographic findings of the lumbrosacral spine.

On March 16, 2010, Dr. John May, M.D., reviewed Miller's medical records and provided DDS with a physical residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment for Miller. Dr. May determined that Miller could: (1) occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds, (2) frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds, (3) stand and/or walk with normal breaks for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday, (4) sit with normal breaks for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday, and (5) push and/or pull without limitations. Dr. May also determined that Miller could frequently climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Dr. May further opined that ...

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