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Caldwell v. Colvin

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

May 14, 2014

DALE ALAN CALDWELL, 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 Dale Alan Caldwell on June 24, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny his application for Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Caldwell asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide him SSI benefits. In the alternative, Caldwell requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.

II. PRIOR PROCEEDINGS

On November 7, 2011, Caldwell protectively filed an application for SSI benefits.[1] In his application, Caldwell alleged an inability to work since February 6, 2003 due to residuals from a head injury, dizziness, confusion, depression, anxiety, vision problems, and shakiness.[2] Caldwell's application was denied on April 25, 2012. On November 29, 2012, his application was denied on reconsideration. On December 28, 2012, Caldwell requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On February 22, 2013, Caldwell appeared via video conference with his attorney before ALJ Eric S. Basse for an administrative hearing. Caldwell and vocational expert Carma Mitchell testified at the hearing. In a decision dated March 4, 2013, the ALJ denied Caldwell's claim. The ALJ determined that Caldwell was not disabled and not entitled to SSI benefits because he was capable of performing his past relevant work as a box maker. Caldwell appealed the ALJ's decision. On May 14, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Caldwell's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's March 4, 2013 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.

On June 24, 2013, Caldwell filed this action for judicial review. The Commissioner filed an Answer on August 27, 2013. On September 26, 2013, Caldwell 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 his past relevant work as a box maker. On December 16, 2013, the Commissioner filed a brief arguing that the ALJ's decision was correct and asking the Court to affirm the ALJ's decision. On December 16, 2013, Caldwell filed a reply brief. On July 8, 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).").

IV. FACTS

A. Caldwell's Education and Employment Background

Caldwell was born in 1957. Apparently, Caldwell did not graduate from high school but stated at the hearing he earned a GED. Caldwell also testified that at some point, he had six months of vocational auto body training.

The record contains a detailed earnings report for Caldwell. The report covers the time period of 1973 to 2013. Prior to 1975, Caldwell earned less than $700. From 1975 to 1984, Caldwell earned between $1, 481.84 (1980) and $8, 769.57 (1981). He had no earnings in 1985. From 1986 to 2003, Caldwell earned between $1, 106.28 (2003) and $39, 249.74 (1998). He has no earnings since 2004.

B. Administrative Hearing Testimony

1. Caldwell's Testimony

At the administrative hearing, the ALJ inquired of Caldwell why he believed he was unable to work. Caldwell responded he is unable to work because he suffers from dizzy spells and does not know when they will occur. Specifically, Caldwell stated that "in my past, I earned my bread on ladders, climbing walls, driving equipment, construction-type things, and I don't, I just never know when this is going to happen. The dizzy spells, they come in waves."[3]

Caldwell's attorney also questioned Caldwell at the hearing. Caldwell's attorney inquired about Caldwell's functional abilities:

Q:... How long do you think you can stand, and what happens after you've stood that long?
A: Well, I can just about get through dishes, so maybe 15 minutes or so.
Q: And then what happens?
A: Then I got to sit down, and the longer I stand up, the longer it takes to recover.
Q: And what about with sitting? Do you have any problems sitting down?
A: I have to change positions often.
Q: And what about walking? How far can you walk?
A: I can go three blocks comfortably, but then I have to rest.

(Administrative Record at 56.) Caldwell also testified he doesn't like to socialize with people. He stated he goes to "my daughter's house and my parents' house and the grocery store. That's it."[4] He further stated he has lived at his apartment for 11 years and doesn't know anybody in the apartment complex.

2. Vocational Expert's Testimony

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

has no exertion limitations; can frequently climb[, ] balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and should avoid concentrated exposure to noise and pulmonary irritants; can perform simple routine tasks in environments that have ...

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