United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
SCOTT M. EDMONDS, 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 Scott M. Edmonds on November 21, 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. Edmonds 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, Edmonds 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. Edmonds' Education and Employment Background
Edmonds was born in 1966. He did not graduate from high school, but later earned a GED. After earning his GED, Edmonds attended community college for truck driving. He has a commercial driving license. Edmonds' past relevant work includes being a merchandise deliverer, laborer, cab driver, forklift truck operator, and truck driver.
B. Vocational Expert's Testimony from the Administrative Hearing
At the administrative hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Elizabeth Albrecht with a hypothetical for an individual who is:
capable of performing medium work... who can... occasional[ly] climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; can perform short simple instructions; and should have no more than occasional interaction with  supervisors.
(Administrative Record at 69-70.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Edmonds could perform his past work as a merchandise deliverer. The ALJ provided the vocational expert with a second hypothetical for an individual who is:
limited to light work... who has the same limitations otherwise; and, in addition can have only brief and superficial interaction with the public and with co-workers.
(Administrative Record at 70.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Edmonds could perform the following jobs: (1) laundry folder (800 positions in Iowa and 86, 000 positions in the nation), (2) routing clerk (800 positions in Iowa and 75, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) small products assembler (4, 300 positions in Iowa and 227, 000 positions in the nation). The ALJ asked the vocational expert a third hypothetical which was identical to the second hypothetical, except that the individual would be limited to sedentary work. Under that set of limitations, the vocational expert testified that Edmonds could perform the following sedentary jobs: (1) addresser (300 positions in Iowa and 25, 000 positions in the nation), (2) final assembler (600 positions in Iowa and 29, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) touch-up screener (200 positions in Iowa and 14, 000 positions in the nation). Lastly, the ALJ asked the vocational expert to "assume then for any of the hypotheticals that I've given you so far that the person... would be absent from work one day a week. Would that preclude anyone?" The vocational expert responded "[y]es, if an individual is absent one day a week that would preclude competitive employment."
C. Edmonds' Medical History
On July 16, 2010, Edmonds met with Dr. Omar Eslao, M.D., for a psychiatric evaluation. Dr. Eslao noted that Edmonds' chief complaints were depression and anxiety. Edmonds' depressive symptoms included: decreased appetite, poor sleep, decreased energy, guilty feelings, and anhedonia. With regard to Edmonds' anxiety, Dr. Eslao opined that:
[Edmonds] did admit to worrying a lot. The worry, however, appears related to worrying about losing control or getting angry and being out of control. The anxiety appears to be more of a problem regulating his emotions rather than actual anxiety. For example, he states that when he gets angry at someone, he has a hard time letting go of the anger.
(Administrative Record at 293.) Dr. Eslao also noted that Edmonds experiences elevated episodes lasting 3 to 4 days. Such episodes are characterized by increased energy, decreased need for sleep, being in a happy mood, talking more, and an increase in goal-directed activities. Edmonds also has racing thoughts during these episodes. At times, the episodes are also associated with auditory hallucinations. In discussing the auditory hallucinations, Dr. Eslao found that:
When asked to describe these voices, [Edmonds] stated that these voices sound like people telling him he is going to die and that people are going after him. He states that he first started hearing these voices eight months ago and that they occur mostly at night. In terms of other psychotic symptoms, he also states that he sometimes feels that the radio is talking to him. At this time, we are unable to rule out the effects of a substance since [Edmonds] admits to smoking marijuana on a daily basis.
(Administrative Record at 293.) Lastly, Dr. Eslao indicated that Edmonds may suffer from PTSD due to sexual abuse by his father from the age of 5 until he was 13. Upon examination, Dr. Eslao diagnosed Edmonds with bipolar disorder, PTSD, and nondependent cannabis abuse. Dr. Eslao recommended individual therapy and medication as treatment.
On October 4, 2010, Edmonds met with Dr. Martin Meyer, Ph.D., and Dr. Julie Uran, Ph.D., for a psychological evaluation. In discussing his difficulties with depression, Edmonds reported to Drs. Meyer and Uran that his:
Depressive phases include depressed mood most of the day, loss of pleasure or interest in most activities, and significant weight fluctuation as well as difficulty falling asleep. He also reports fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, and diminished ability to think, concentrate or make decisions.... Manic episodes of Bipolar Disorder occur more frequently and are without euphoria. Symptoms ...