United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
TERRY D. HUINKER, 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 2) filed by Plaintiff Terry D. Huinker on December 13, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny him Title II disability insurance benefits. Huinker asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide him disability insurance benefits. In the alternative, Huinker 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, 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. Huinker's Education and Employment Background
Huinker was born in 1968. He did not graduate from high school, but later earned a GED. His past relevant work experience consists of being a residential care worker, propane salesman, and service worker.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Huinker's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, Huinker testified that since 2010, he has worked part-time, 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., at Four Oaks, a children's residential treatment center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Huinker indicated that he generally works 8 hours per week. At other times he stated that he worked 16-20 hours per week. The ALJ inquired what Huinker believes is his biggest obstacle to being able to work full-time, instead of part-time. Huinker replied that his biggest obstacle is problems with his ability to concentrate. For example, Huinker stated that he sometimes has difficulty engaging in conversations with others because he loses track of what he is saying. Huinker also indicated that his ability to work at a full-time level is compromised by low energy and pain in his back and upper body. He described irregular sleeping habits due to a combination of pain and side effects of medication. Huinker further testified that he has problems with his hands. He stated he has difficulty writing with a pen or doing data-entry type work.
2. Joann Huinker's Testimony
Huinker's wife, Joann Huinker ("Joann"), also testified at the administrative hearing. The ALJ asked Joann what she thought is Huinker's biggest obstacle to working full-time. Joann responded that Huinker's biggest obstacle to working full-time is dealing with pain. She stated "[t]he more he works, the worst [ sic ] he gets, the more medications he has to take." Joann also stated that Huinker's difficulties with concentration limit his ability to work full-time.
3. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Julie Svec with a hypothetical for an individual who can perform:
light work... [e]xcept that rather than the ability to occasionally lift 20 pounds[, ]... he can only lift 10 pounds occasionally... and 10 pounds frequently. So it's kind of a reduced level of light work, but in terms of being - standing and walking, it would be the same as light work. And secondly, ... the individual can do no more than frequent handling, fingering, and touching. So that would be up to two-thirds of the time, but no more than that. And finally assume that the individual is limited to doing only simple routine and repetitive work, with no close attention to detail, and no use of independent judgment on the job.
(Administrative Record at 93-94.) The ALJ instructed the vocational expert not to consider the hypothetical in context of Huinker's past relevant work. Accordingly, the vocational expert testified that under the limitations set forth in the hypothetical, Huinker could perform the following jobs: (1) parking lot attendant (350 positions in Iowa and 18, 000 positions in the nation), (2) library attendant (1, 800 positions in Iowa and 100, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) sorter (1, 500 positions in Iowa and 93, 000 positions in the nation).
Huinker's attorney also questioned the vocational expert:
Q: If I modified the first hypothetical to occasional fingering, would any of those three jobs fit within that?
Q: If I modified the first hypothetical to include that he would need to take frequent irregular breaks, would that preclude all employment?
A: It would....
Q: If he is limited to no more than a four-hour workday, does that preclude all competitive employment?
A: It does.
(Administrative Record at 95-96.)
C. Huinker's Medical History
On March 27, 2009, Huinker was referred to Dr. Tork J. Harman, M.D., for consultation on low back pain. In reviewing Huinker's back pain history, Dr. Harmon noted that:
[Huinker] has a history of low back pain with self-limited episodes over the past several years. Over the past 2 years or so, it has become particularly bothersome.... He denies any specific traumatic injury to his spine or any prior operations on his back. His main pain is across his low back from hip-to-hip with some radiation to his right buttock and posterior thigh and occasional pain down the left lateral thigh but not below the knee. He denies any frank numbness or tingling of his lower extremities.... His sleep is occasionally broken. He is on a 10-pound lifting restriction at work.
(Administrative Record at 347.) Upon examination, Dr. Harman diagnosed Huinker with chronic nonspecific low back pain, which is mechanical axial in nature. Dr. Harman further noted that he found "[n]o high-grade impingement or evidence of radiculopathy." Dr. Harman administered a epidural steroid block in Huinker's spine as treatment.
Huinker returned to Dr. Harman in June 2009. He continued to complain of low back pain. Dr. Harman noted that Huinker's pain "is worse when he is lifting or stuck in one position for too long. When he changes positions frequently, he gets relief. When he is seated, he does have relief for a while." Dr. Harman administered radiofrequency neurolysis as treatment.
On November 4, 2009, long-time treating source, Michael Michilides, PA-C, opined that Huinker "is permanently disabled as he cannot lift over 10 pounds or do any repetitive work motion." In December 2009, Michilides restricted Huinker to lifting no more than 10 pounds with his right arm, and no bilateral repetitive movement due to chronic pain and eight right arm surgeries. On January 19, 2010, due to his medical condition, Michilides restricted Huinker to working a maximum of 20 hours per week with 4 to 5-hour shifts. On February 5, 2010, Michilides determined that "[b]ecause of chronic medical problems, and medications required to help control his chronic medical problems, Mr. Huinker needs to be limited to 16 hours a week of work, no more than 4 hours a day 4 days a week in order to keep his medical conditions from worsening." On March 22, 2010, Michilides filled out a "Physical Ability Assessment Form." Michilides found that Huinker could occasionally (less than 2.5 hours in an eight-hour workday): sit, stand, walk, reach in all directions, finger, grasp, lift 10-20 pounds, carry 10-20 pounds, push/pull 60 pounds, climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.
On June 28, 2010, Dr. George M. Harper, Ed.D., Huinker's treating psychologist, provided the Social Security Administration ("SSA") with a letter discussing Huinker's mental health. Dr. Harper noted that Huinker suffers from chronic physical pain which is only partially managed with pain medication. As a result, the chronic pain has led to major depression "which is having a significant impact on [Huinker's] mental functioning." Regarding Huinker's functional abilities, Dr. Harper opined that:
In regard to [Huinker's] ability to remember and understand instructions, procedures, and locations, this psychologist would estimate that his capacity is moderately impaired largely because of his depression. Also Mr. Huinker's ability to carry out instructions, maintain attention, concentration and pace are also moderately limited because his depression is interfering with his ability to concentrate which, in turn, interferes with his ability to remember. On the other hand, Mr. Huinker is capable of interacting appropriately with supervisors, co-workers and the public except when his pain has become quite intense and has become the focus of his mental activity. His ability to use good judgment and respond appropriately to changes in the work place appears to be mildly to moderately impaired as a result of his depression.
(Administrative Record at 385.)
On July 16, 2010, Dr. Matthew Byrnes, D.O., reviewed Huinker's medical records and provided Disability Determination Services ("DDS") with a physical residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment for Huinker. Dr. Byrnes determined that Huinker could: (1) occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds, (2) frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds, (3) stand and/or walk with normal breaks for a total of about six 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 frequently with his right upper extremity. Dr. Byrnes also determined that Huinker could occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Dr. Byrnes found that ...