United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
DOROTHY S. GORDON, 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 3) filed by Plaintiff Dorothy S. Gordon on October 21, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her application for Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Gordon 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, Gordon requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.
II. 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. Gordon's Education and Employment Background
Gordon was born in 1967. She is a high school graduate. She attended college at various times in her life, but has not completed a college degree due to both depression and physical health problems. In the past, Gordon worked as a truck driver, home health aide, and cashier.
B. Vocational Expert's Testimony from the Administrative Hearing
At the administrative hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Melinda Stahr with a hypothetical for an individual with the ability to:
occasionally lift [and] carry 20 pounds, frequently 10, stand, walk at least two hours in an eight hour work day, sit with normal breaks with a total of about six hours in an eight hour work day, occasionally climbing ramps, stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, never climbing ladder, rope, scaffolds or crawling, frequently handling and fingering, able to shift postural positions without leaving the work place and with no loss of productivity, limited to simple, routine, tasks.
(Administrative Record at 52.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Gordon could not perform her past relevant work. The vocational expert testified, however, that Gordon could perform the following jobs: (1) document preparer (700 positions in Iowa and 64, 000 positions in the nation), (2) touch-up screener (760 positions in Iowa and 50, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) addresser (200 positions in Iowa and 24, 000 positions in the nation). The ALJ presented the vocational expert with an additional hypothetical limiting the individual to sedentary work with:
climbing, ramps [and] stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching  occasionally, never climbing ladder, ropes, scaffolds, crawling, frequently handling and fingering bilaterally, able to shift postural positions without leaving the work place and with no loss of productivity and this could be accomplished during the break periods and/or lunch, limited to simple, routine tasks, no more than at a regular pace, no close attention to detail.
(Administrative Record at 53-54.) The vocational expert testified that her answer to this hypothetical would be the same as her answer to the first hypothetical. Thus, Gordon could not perform her past relevant work, but she could perform the jobs of document preparer, touch-up screener, and addresser.
C. Gordon's Medical History
On May 20, 2010, Dr. Donald Shumate, D.O., reviewed Gordon's medical records and provided Disability Determination Services ("DDS") with a physical residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment for Gordon. Dr. Shumate determined that Gordon could: (1) occasionally lift and/or carry 10 pounds, (2) frequently lift and/or carry less than 10 pounds, (3) stand and/or walk with normal breaks for at least two 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. Shumate also determined that Gordon could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch, but never crawl. Additionally, Dr. Shumate found that Gordon should ...