United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
VALERIE D. FERDINAND, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
JON STUART SCOLES, Magistrate Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 5) filed by Plaintiff Valerie D. Ferdinand on April 24, 2014, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her Title II disability insurance benefits. Ferdinand 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, Ferdinand 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. Ferdinand's Education and Employment Background
Ferdinand was born in 1961. At the administrative hearing, Ferdinand testified that she completed the tenth grade, but was "kicked out" of school while she was in the eleventh grade. In the past, Ferdinand worked in the area of patient registration at a hospital, as an administrative assistant, and as a certified nursing assistant.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Ferdinand's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, the ALJ inquired about Ferdinand's impairments. Ferdinand discussed auditory hallucinations:
Well I just hear, first it would be like noises and you know, like I'm looking around like I know I heard that and I'm looking to see if anybody else heard it. And then I would hear the noises that would tell me to just do it, just do it. And I'm so sad a lot of the time that to do it means to just go ahead and just kill yourself. Things are just not good anyway, so just go ahead and do it. Those are the noises that I hear the voices out here, just do it. Just do it, just go ahead and just kill yourself.
(Administrative Record at 52.) Ferdinand indicated that recently her auditory hallucinations had gotten better with medication. Specifically, she stated that the frequency of the hallucinations had decreased, and they were also softer and less noisy. According to Ferdinand, even though she was taking medication for the hallucinations, she was not taking it as prescribed because she wanted to "conserve" the medication.
Next, Ferdinand testified that she has difficulty sleeping due to her mental health problems. She stated that she averages only about five hours of sleep per night. The lack of sleep makes her tired the next day. She also indicated that she has difficulty with concentrating and remembering things. Ferdinand also testified that she prefers not to go out in public. For example, she only goes to the grocery store once or twice per month, usually in the early morning.
Lastly, Ferdinand's attorney asked Ferdinand whether she had any other information she would like to tell the ALJ:
There's a lot that happened during my life and I'm not making any excuses I'm just like giving an explanation. I was a product of a - my mother's boyfriend abused me when I was 12. And that was the first time when I tried to commit suicide. This was right after I got shot at 11 and he took advantage of the fact that I could not talk. You know and when I told my mom that what he was doing, he said that he wasn't doing it and it just went on and on until I was 14 when he started penetrating and then I got pregnant. And then I got, I tried to commit suicide again at the age of 18. And then you know the rest, 26 again was the last time. So it's not like I chose to have a life that seems so screwed up mentally, you know, not at all. I wish things were different for me mentally, you know. I want to have a productive life. I know, you know, this is not normal for me. So but I don't want to be stuck between the cracks, you know, where I don't get the help that I need. And I'm just shoved aside. That's all.
(Administrative Record at 64-65.)
2. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Vanessa May with a hypothetical for an individual who:
has no exertional limitations but needs to avoid exposure to hazardous conditions such as moving machinery, unprotected heights and so forth. This person can perform simple, routine tasks and should probably work in environments where there are few workplace changes, in other words, pretty routine, simple tasks that are repetitive in nature. Should not be required to work at a production rate pace and can have occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. Occasional, I'm using that term as defined in the ...