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 4) filed by Plaintiff Chad Schwartz on February 14, 2014, 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. Schwartz 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, Schwartz 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 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. Schwartz's Education and Employment Background
Schwartz was born in 1975. He did not graduate from high school, but later earned his GED. In the past, he worked as a machinist and production team leader.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Schwartz's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, Schwartz and the ALJ discussed his health problems. Schwartz testified that he has residual lung and breathing problems due to a pulmonary embolism suffered following back surgery in 2011. Schwartz explained that he has trouble going out for walks "because I can go for 15 minutes and then I have to stop and actually catch my breath. If I do anything like strenuous activities, even at home, ... I have to sit down in front of a fan to catch my breath." Schwartz also indicated that hot weather significantly impacts his breathing difficulties.
Next, Schwartz testified that he has constant pain in his back. He stated "I have a hard time just even bending over to grab something off the floor, let alone trying to pick up anything or do anything else." Schwartz stated that he shifts positions about every five to ten minutes while sitting, and needs to get up and move around from a seated position every 30 minutes. He estimated the largest amount he could lift is 20 pounds. Schwartz further stated that his back pain significantly affects his sleep, and limits the amount of sleep he gets every night.
Lastly, Schwartz stated that he has significant pain in his feet. Specifically, Schwartz testified that he has "constant pain in my feet, that I lose feeling in my feet and my feet sometimes turn purple." According to Schwartz, his doctors are trying to treat his foot issues with medication.
2. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Marian S. Jacobs with a hypothetical for an individual who is:
limited to performing light work... [and] can only occasionally stoop and crouch; and is not able to crawl or kneel or climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, so some complete preclusion of crawl, climb and kneel; but is able to stoop and crouch occasionally.
(Administrative Record at 62.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Schwartz could not perform his past relevant work. The vocational expert testified, however, that Schwartz could perform the following jobs: (1) data entry clerk, and (2) order filler. The ALJ provided the vocational expert with a second hypothetical for an individual who is limited to sedentary work and requires:
the freedom to alternate between sitting and standing as often as every 30 minutes as they [are] performing their job duties. And in addition, again, with the same limits on stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl and climb, the very same limits I had given you before, but I ...