United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
JON STUART SCOLES, Chief Magistrate Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 3) filed by Plaintiff Leslie Jay Sergeant on November 20, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny his applications for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Sergeant asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide him disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits. In the alternative, Sergeant requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.
II. 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. Sergeant's Education and Employment Background
Sergeant was born in 1954. At the administrative hearing, Sergeant testified that he dropped out high school, but later earned a GED at Kirkwood Community College. After earning his GED, he also studied market management for two years at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa. Sergeant's past work includes being a dishwasher at a restaurant, working for an employment placement agency, and working as a store clerk.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Sergeant's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, Sergeant testified that he believes he has been "disabled most of my life, but I haven't really figured out that I was until probably a year or two ago." Sergeant defined being disabled as being unable to "hold a steady job." The ALJ inquired further regarding Sergeant's reasoning:
Q: What do you think the reason - it says you've got some problems with drugs and alcohol. Is that some of the reason you couldn't hold jobs?
A: No. I, I occasionally use.
Q: What's the reason you don't think you can hold a job?
A: My paranoia has gotten bad.
Q: Is the paranoia from drugs?
A: No. I was born with [it].
(Administrative Record at 39.) In response to questions from the ALJ regarding his drug use, Sergeant testified that he primarily used marijuana and crack cocaine in the past, but admitted to still using them "occasionally." For example, Sergeant stated that he last used crack cocaine 1 to 3 months prior to the hearing.
Sergeant's attorney also questioned Sergeant regarding his mental health issues. Sergeant described his paranoia as causing him to not want to be around people because he believes they are "talking against" him. Sergeant also indicated that he has difficulty remembering things, due partly to medication that he takes. Finally, Sergeant testified that he suffers from bipolar disorder, with greater emphasis on depression than manic states.
2. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Elizabeth Albrecht with a hypothetical for an individual who is capable of:
lifting 50 pounds occasionally, 25 pounds frequently; sitting and standing two hours at a time for six of an eight-hour day; walking three blocks; no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; no working at heights. [He or she] would a need lower stress level, such as four, with ten being the most stressful and one being the least stressful; would require a job with no contact with the general public and limited contact with fellow workers.
(Administrative Record at 54-55.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Sergeant could perform the following medium jobs: (1) packager (1, 800 positions in Iowa and 166, 000 positions in the nation), (2) stores laborer (780 positions in Iowa and 96, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) industrial cleaner (600 positions in Iowa and 371, 000 positions in the nation). The ALJ asked the vocational expert two additional hypotheticals which were identical to the first hypothetical except that the individual would miss three or more days of work per month due to drug and alcohol addition (hypothetical two) and/or chronic pain syndrome, depression, and mental impairment (hypothetical three). The vocational expert testified that "[i]f an individual misses three or more days of work a month, under those chronic conditions, that would preclude competitive employment."
C. Sergeant's Medical History
On November 8, 2010, Sergeant was referred to Dr. Laura V. Calderwood, M.D., after being hospitalized for a brief period. When asked what his chief complaint was, Sergeant stated "I've always had problems." In speaking with Sergeant, Dr. Calderwood noted:
His mood is depressed and he more irritable. He isn't interested in anything and he doesn't want to do anything. He can't enjoy things. He doesn't have any hope. Things keep going downhill. His energy is low and he has a bad opinion of himself.... He said he is more often depressed. He has had occasional episodes of mania. He said they last for less than a day. His thoughts race all the time.... It's hard to get anything out of him except that he stays up without need for sleep. His answers don't always make sense.
(Administrative Record at 301.) Dr. Calderwood also noted that Sergeant had a history of abusing drugs and alcohol. According to Dr. Calderwood's notes, "[s]ometimes he uses drugs now. Sometimes he drinks to excess but he says he doesn't drink very often." Upon examination, Dr. Calderwood diagnosed Sergeant with bipolar disorder, cognitive disorder, and occasional alcohol and drug abuse. Dr. Calderwood recommended medication and psychotherapy as treatment.
On March 6, 2012, Dr. Jeanette H. Oleskowicz, M.D., filled out a disability benefits questionnaire for Sergeant, in conjunction with an application for Veterans disability benefits. Dr. Calderwood diagnosed Sergeant with bipolar disorder, history of personality disorder, and history of ...