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Jones-Bell v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

December 1, 2014

RHONDA A. JONES-BELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

For Rhonda A Jones-Bell, Plaintiff: Thomas A Krause, LEAD ATTORNEY, Schott Mauss & Associates, PLLC, Des Moines, IA; Timothy S Semelroth, LEAD ATTORNEY, RSH Legal, PC, Cedar Rapids, IA.

For Commissioner of Social Security agent of Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant: Michael Allen Moss, LEAD ATTORNEY, Social Security Administration Office of General Counsel - Region VI - Dallas, Dallas, TX; Stephanie Johnson Wright, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office, Cedar Rapids, IA.

RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW

JON STUART SCOLES, CHIEF MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

III. PRINCIPLES OF REVIEW

IV. FACTS

A. Jones-Bell's Education and Employment Background

B. Vocational Expert's Testimony from the Supplemented

Administrative Hearing Held on September 5, 2013

C. Jones-Bell's Medical History

V. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

A. ALJ's Disability Determination

B. Objections Raised By Claimant

1. Dr. Keating's Opinions

2. Consideration of Obesity

VI. CONCLUSION

VII. ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 3) filed by Plaintiff Rhonda A. Jones-Bell on March 6, 2014, 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.[1] Jones-Bell 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, Jones-Bell requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On May 29, 2008, Jones-Bell applied for both disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits. In her applications, Jones-Bell alleged an inability to work since March 8, 2008 due to asthma, sleep apnea, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, anemia, acid reflux, allergies, and anxiety. Jones-Bell's applications were denied on August 15, 2008. On December 18, 2008, her applications were denied on reconsideration. On February 3, 2009, Jones-Bell requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ"). On September 9, 2010, Jones-Bell appeared via video conference with her attorney before ALJ John E. Sandbothe for an administrative hearing. In a decision dated November 19, 2010, the ALJ denied Jones-Bell's claims. The ALJ determined that Jones-Bell was not disabled and not entitled to disability insurance benefits or SSI benefits because she was functionally capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Jones-Bell appealed the ALJ's decision. On January 27, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Jones-Bell's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's November 19, 2010 decision was adopted as the Commissioner's final decision.

On March 29, 2012, Jones-Bell filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny her applications for disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits.[2] On February 12, 2013, the undersigned reversed and remanded Jones-Bell's case to the Commissioner for further consideration of the opinions of Dr. Keating, a treating physician, and reconsideration of Jones-Bell's RFC in light of her obesity being a severe impairment.[3] On September 5, 2013, a supplemental administrative hearing was held before ALJ Sandbothe. In a decision dated November 27, 2013, the ALJ, on remand, denied Jones-Bell's claims. The ALJ determined that Jones-Bell was not disabled and not entitled to disability insurance benefits or SSI benefits because she was functionally capable of performing her past work as a cashier.[4] Jones-Bell did not appeal the ALJ's remand decision, and the Appeals Council did not review the ALJ's decision on its own. Consequently, the ALJ's November 27, 2013 decision became the Commissioner's final decision.[5]

On March 6, 2014, Jones-Bell filed the instant action for judicial review of the ALJ's November 27, 2013 remand 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). 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, 393 F.3d at 801 (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).").

IV. FACTS

A. Jones-Bell's Education and Employment Background

Jones-Bell was born in 1973. She is a high school graduate. She also spent three years in college, but did not obtain any type of degree. In the past, Jones-Bell worked as a cashier, cleaner, and home health aide.

B. Vocational Expert's Testimony from the Supplemental Administrative Hearing Held on September 5, 2013

At the supplemental administrative hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Elizabeth Albrecht with a hypothetical for an individual with the following limitations:

She could lift 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently. She could only occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, or climb. She could not tolerate any extremes of heat, cold, humidity, dust, or fumes. . . . I would indicate she would be limited to simple, routine repetitive work, occasional superficial contact with the public, [and] regular pace.

(Administrative Record at 943-944.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Jones-Bell could perform her prior work as a cashier. The ALJ provided the vocational expert with a second hypothetical that was identical to the first hypothetical, but added that the individual would need " two or more unscheduled breaks, [and] a slow pace for up to one-third of the day." [6] The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Jones-Bell could not perform her past work as a cashier, and would be precluded from all competitive employment.

Jones-Bell's attorney also questioned the vocational expert:

Q: If the hypothetical person could not work full eight-hour days. If they were limited to less than eight hours, six hours maximum per day, would they be competitively employable?
A: Well, an individual that could work six hours could do part-time work. But they would be precluded from full-time ...

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