United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
TAMMI C. FREDERICKSEN, 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 Tammi C. Fredericksen on December 7, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her application for Title II disability insurance benefits. Fredericksen 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, Fredericksen requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.
II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
On July 13, 2009, Fredericksen applied for disability insurance benefits. In her application, Fredericksen alleged an inability to work since June 1, 2009 due to bipolar disorder and degenerative arthritis in her back and knees. Fredericksen's application was denied on October 1, 2009. On December 2, 2009, her application was denied on reconsideration. On January 4, 2010, Fredericksen requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On April 14, 2011, Fredericksen appeared via video conference with her attorney before ALJ Jeffrey Marvel for an administrative hearing. In a decision dated April 28, 2011, the ALJ denied Fredericksen's claim. Fredericksen appealed the ALJ's decision. On December 20, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Fredericksen's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's April 28, 2011 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.
On February 20, 2012, Fredericksen filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny her application for disability insurance benefits. On January 22, 2013, United States District Court Judge Edward J. McManus reversed and remanded Fredericksen's case to the Commissioner for further consideration of the medical opinion evidence in the record. Prior to Judge McManus' remand order, on July 6, 2012, Fredericksen filed a new application for disability insurance benefits, again alleging an inability to work since June 1, 2009. Her new application was denied on September 4, 2012. On January 9, 2013, the application was denied on reconsideration. On February 21, 2013, Fredericksen requested an administrative hearing before an ALJ. On August 14, 2013, Fredericksen appeared via video conference with her attorney before ALJ Eric S. Basse for an administrative hearing "on remand from the Appeals Council pursuant to a remand from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa." Additionally, Fredericksen's subsequent application for disability insurance benefits filed in July 2012, was incorporated into the ALJ's administrative hearing on remand and final disability determination. In a decision dated September 30, 2013, the ALJ issued a partially favorable ruling, finding Fredericksen disabled beginning on December 1, 2012. The ALJ determined, however, that Fredericksen was not disabled during the period of June 1, 2009, her alleged disability onset date, to November 30, 2012. Fredericksen did not appeal the ALJ's decision on remand, and the Appeals Council did not review the ALJ's decision on its own. Consequently, the ALJ's September 30, 2013 became the Commissioner's final decision.
On December 7, 2013, Fredericksen filed the instant action for judicial review of the ALJ's September 30, 2013 decision.
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). 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. Fredericksen's Education and Employment Background
Fredericksen was born in 1970. She completed the 12th grade in school. Her past relevant work consists of the following jobs: food server, machine packager, resident aide, cashier, receptionist, sales attendant, and apparel rental clerk.
B. Vocational Expert's Testimony from the Administrative Hearing Held on August 14, 2013
At the administrative hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Vanessa May with a hypothetical for an individual who is able to:
perform light work... [i]n that she can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and walk six hours out of an eight hour work day, sit for six hours out of an eight hour work day, occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb and frequently balance, should not perform work that requires close attention to detail due to deficits and concentration, persistence and pace and can have occasional contact with the public, co-workers and supervisors.
(Administrative Record at 716.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Fredericksen could not perform her past relevant work. The vocational expert testified, however, that Fredericksen could perform the following jobs: (1) retail marker (2, 500 positions in Iowa and 200, 000 positions in the nation), (2) mail clerk (700 positions in Iowa and 64, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) housekeeping cleaner (10, 000 positions in Iowa and 890, 000 positions in the nation). The ALJ provided the vocational expert with a second hypothetical:
This person, it's the same person with the additional restrictions, can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel and crouch, cannot climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, cannot crawl with the bilateral upper extremities, can reach overhead occasionally. Again, this person could perform simple routine tasks and have occasional contact with the public, co-workers and supervisors.
(Administrative Record at 717.) The vocational expert answered that under such limitations, Fredericksen could perform both the retail marker and mail clerk jobs under the first hypothetical, but could not perform the housekeeping cleaner job. Instead of the housekeeping cleaner job, the vocational expert opined that Fredericksen could perform the job of photocopy machine operator (280 positions in Iowa and 29, 000 positions in the nation).
C. Fredericksen's Medical History
On July 10, 2009, Fredericksen met with Dr. William Crowley, M.D., for a psychiatric evaluation. In reviewing Fredericksen's medical history, Dr. Crowley noted that Fredericksen had been off biploar disorder medication since 2005. Fredericksen reported that she is "sad every day, can't sleep, her thoughts are racing, she gets agitated, feels worthless and thinks things are hopeless but she's also irritable, [and] has crying spells." Dr. Crowley also noted that Fredericksen quit her job in April 2009 due to her irritability causing conflicts with her employer. On mental status examination, Dr. Crowley found that Fredericksen was depressed and tearful with constricted affect. Furthermore, Dr. Crowley found no evidence of psychosis or suicidal ideation. Finally, Dr. Crowley determined that her "[i]ntelligence is average or above. ...