United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
NANCY S. THORNTON, 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 Nancy S. Thornton on May 20, 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. Thornton 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, Thornton requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.
II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
On August 31, 2009, Thornton applied for both disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits. In her applications, Thornton alleged an inability to work since June 20, 2005 due to diabetes, high blood pressure, flat feet, depression, hip dysplasia, and diverticulitis. Thornton's applications were denied on December 21, 2009. On April 13, 2010, her applications were denied on reconsideration. On June 23, 2010. Thornton requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On October 6, 2011, Thornton appeared via video conference with her attorney before ALJ Jeffrey Marvel for an administrative hearing. Thornton and vocational expert Elizabeth M. Albrecht testified at the hearing. In a decision dated December 9, 2011, the ALJ denied Thornton's claims. The ALJ determined that Thornton was not disabled and not entitled to disability insurance benefits or SSI benefits because she was functionally capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Thornton appealed the ALJ's decision. On March 20, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Thornton's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's December 9, 2011 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.
On May 20, 2013, Thornton filed this action for judicial review. The Commissioner filed an Answer on September 19, 2013. On November 4, 2013, Thornton 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 other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On January 8, 2014, 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 January 21, 2014, Thornton filed a reply brief. On October 24, 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. Thornton's Education and Employment Background
Thornton was born in 1957. She is a high school graduate. After high school, Thornton attended two years of college. At the administrative hearing, she also testified that she earned two technical degrees in cosmetology and massage therapy.
The record contains a detailed earnings report for Thornton. The report covers the time period of 1973 to 2010. Prior to 1977, Thornton had minimal earnings, ranging from no earnings to $220. From 1977 to 1979, Thornton earned $1, 841.77 (1977), $5, 907.81 (1978), and $2, 451.75 (1979), respectively. She had no earnings in 1980. In 1981, she earned $1, 469.50, and $485.00 in 1982. She, again, had no earnings in 1983. From 1984 to 1990, Thornton earned between $72.00 (1988) and $7, 637.97 (1986). Then from 1991 to 1996, she, again, had no earnings. From 1997 to 2002, she earned between $899.07 (2002) and $23, 545.47 (2001). Once again, she had no earnings from 2003 to 2008. In 2009, she earned $8, 219.67. She has no earnings since 2010.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Thornton's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, the ALJ asked Thornton to describe the health problems that she believes causes her to be unable to work. Thornton responded that she is unable to work due to exhaustion, neuropathy in her feet and hands, and pain in her legs, back, and neck. Thornton also discussed her mental health difficulties. She stated that she is bipolar, and has difficulties with anxiety, agoraphobia, and panic attacks. Regarding the bipolar disorder. Thornton testified that:
I... have depression, more so, now that I've gotten older than I have the mania. I still have some - will go through cycles with the mania. And when I'm manic, I don't sleep. I stay up - you know, I stay up all night. And then when I go in to depression, I'll - I don't like to leave the house. I don't like people to see me. I don't - just want to just stay at the house, and I can't leave.
(Administrative Record at 42-43.) Thornton also testified that due to her mental health issues, she has some memory problems, including remembering dates and time.
Thornton's attorney also questioned Thornton. Thornton's attorney inquired about her functional abilities:
Q: How long can you stand without taking a break?
A: Probably 15-20 minutes....
Q: How about sitting? Can you sit?
A: I can sit a little bit longer than I can stand, but if I sit, my - my left leg starts to [get] pain in my calf. And then my right leg is also having - starting to have pain up behind my knee and up into my thigh....
Q: Could you - could you lift 20 pounds today on a continuous basis or frequent basis?
Q: How much do you think you could lift on a frequent basis?
A: I would -
Q: 10 pounds or less?
Q: Do you have problems with bending or kneeling or ...