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 1) filed by Plaintiff Paula Sue Michel on December 30, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her Title II disability insurance benefits. Michel asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide her disability insurance benefits. In the alternative, Michel 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). 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's 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. Michel's Education and Employment Background
Michel was born in 1966. She is a college graduate. Prior to October 2009, when she alleges she became disabled, Michel worked for an Area Education Agency as a speech/language pathologist. She started working at that position in August 1990.
B. Vocational Expert's Testimony from the Administrative Hearing
At the administrative hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Julie Svec with a hypothetical for an individual who is limited to sedentary work and can:
only occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl, and the worker is unable to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds at all.
In addition, assume that this worker cannot be exposed to any extraordinary hazards on the job, and by that I mean work near dangerous moving machinery or work at unprotected heights where [if] someone sort of lost control of her body or lost strength... they would be in serious danger.... I want you to assume that this worker can't be exposed to extremes of temperature, and so just for these purposes, I'd like you to assume that this worker needs work indoors in a climate-controlled environment much like would be found in a typical office setting or retail store, something like that, air-conditioned, heated with no real dust, gases.
Finally, I'd like you to assume that this worker can do only the most simple and repetitive and routine types of work, work that doesn't require any close attention to detail at all and doesn't require the use of any independent judgment on the job, and that's so because the work is so unchanging there's no new circumstance that the worker needs to adjudge or adapt or figure out how to respond to it because there are no such changes on the job.
(Administrative Record at 65.) The vocational expert agreed with the ALJ that under such limitations, Michel could not perform her past relevant work. The vocational expert testified, however, that Michel could perform the following jobs: (1) document preparer (500 positions in Iowa and 50, 000 positions in the nation), (2) ticket checker (400 positions in Iowa and 13, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) order clerk (400 positions in Iowa and 23, 000 in the nation). The ALJ provided the vocational expert with a second hypothetical which was identical to the first hypothetical, except that "due to fatigue, the worker would be unable to use their hands to perform any job task whatsoever, in other words cannot grasp, finger, handle anything at all more than a total of two hours a workday[.]" The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Michel would be precluded from competitive employment.
C. Michel's Medical History
On November 17, 2010, Dr. Laura Griffith, D.O., reviewed Michel's medical records and provided Disability Determination Services ("DDS") with a physical residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment for Michel. Dr. Griffith determined that Michel 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. Griffith also determined that Michel could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Additionally, Dr. Griffith found that Michel should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and extreme heat. Dr. Griffith found no manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations. Dr. Griffith concluded that:
[Michel] indicates she is debilitated by pain and fatigue. [A treating source] noted an improvement with therapy changes and suggested she needed to be invested in improvement. Though she has limited participation she has no objective deficit and she is limited primarily by subjective complaints of pain and fatigue.
(Administrative Record at 425.)
On November 24, 2010, Michel was referred by DDS to Dr. Keith F. Gibson, Ph.D., for a mental status examination and psychological report. Dr. Gibson provided the following review of Michel's health history:
[Michel] is applying for benefits due to the debilitating effects of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. The chronic fatigue syndrome was diagnosed by her internist, and the fibromyalgia was subsequently diagnosed by her rheumatologist. The chronicity and severity of her chronic pain and chronic fatigue have generated a high level of depression and anxiety. [She] is on numerous ...