United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
JON STUART SCOLES, Magistrate Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 1) filed by Plaintiff Michelle Leann Mensen on November 5, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her applications for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Mensen asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide her disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits. In the alternative, Mensen 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 me 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, 614 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 decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") 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. Mensen's Education and Employment Background
Mensen was born in 1972. She is a high school graduate. She also attended one year of college. In the past, Mensen held jobs as a customer service representative, order taker, youth counselor, and childcare worker.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony from May 16, 2014
1. Mensen's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, Mensen's attorney asked Mensen why she believed she was no longer able to work. Mensen stated that she could not work because she suffered from PTSD and panic attacks. Specifically, Mensen testified that she has daily flashbacks to multiple sexual assaults committed against her in the past. Due to the assaults, she does not like to go places where there are a lot of people because she worries that someone will hurt her. She described her panic attacks as involving chest pain, difficulty breathing, and hysterical crying. According to Mensen, she takes medication and often calls a crisis telephone hotline when a panic attack occurs. It generally takes 20 to 45 minutes to get herself under control.
Mensen also stated that she suffers from depression. She described her depression on bad days as follows:
I just - I don't bother taking a shower or getting dressed and all that stuff's just too much. I just get up in the morning, I take my pillow to the couch, and I lay down and watch TV. And sleep on and off in the day, and I - that's what I remember working with my therapist on too, because I go early, three or four, maybe five days without taking a shower or anything, because I'm just - I just [don't] seem to get myself to get up and do it, because I just don't care. I just want to lay there.
(Administrative Record at 71-72.) Mensen testified that she has these types of days "usually about three days a week." Mensen also stated that she has crying spells on a daily basis. Specifically, she testified "[s]ometimes. I don't know why I'm crying, I just, I feel like so much hurt inside, and I just - I don't know how to make it go away. Because I keep trying different medications, and it doesn't go away."
Mensen also indicated that she suffers from migraine headaches once or twice per month. Her migraines cause blurry vision, dizziness, and nausea. She takes medication to treat her migraines. Mensen has also been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and suffers from chronic pain. She stated she can walk in a drug store for about 20 minutes with the assistance of a walker. According to Mensen, her chronic pain makes it difficult for her to carry items weighing more than a gallon of milk or pick up a basket full of clothes.
2. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Melinda Stahr with a hypothetical for an individual who is limited to:
lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, stand and walk [six] hours a day, sit six hours a day. The hypothetical individual can only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl. This hypothetical individual should have no more than occasional exposure to extreme cold or noise. This hypothetical individual should have no exposure to hazardous conditions, such as working around heights, or moving machinery. This hypothetical individual can never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. This hypothetical individual is limited to tasks that could be learned in 30 days or less, involving no more than simple work related decisions, with only occasional work place changes. This work should require little or no judgment. And this hypothetical individual should have no more than occasional interaction with the general public, co-workers, or supervisors.
(Administrative Record at 81-82.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations. Mensen could not perform her past relevant work. The vocational expert testified, however, that Mensen could perform the following jobs: (1) small products assembler (1, 600 positions in Iowa and 29, 000 positions in the nation), (2) housekeeper maid (1, 600 positions in Iowa and 136, 000 positions in the nation), and (3) folder (4, 800 positions in Iowa and 420, 000 positions in the nation).
C. Mensen's Medical History
On September 18, 2009, Mensen met with Dr. Dwight J. Schroeder, M.D. Mensen reported to Dr. Schroeder that:
She is very terrified of her husband at this time and that terrifying feeling gets worse once he comes home after work at night. Her mood is down. Appetite is down. Weight is down some, she is unsure how much. Sleep is down with initial insomnia. She wakes up with headaches in the morning. Energy is down. Motivation is down. Interest is down. Concentration is down. Memory is down. She has crying spells with and without reason, [feelings of] worthlessness, hopelessness, trouble making simple decisions, irritability, suspiciousness, excess worrying, some "I don't care attitude" and increased anxiety.... She was raped at the age of 21 and ever since then has had posttraumatic stress disorder and has been treated for that also. [She] ...