United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
TERESA A. STEELE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
JON STUART SCOLES, District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 3) filed by Plaintiff Teresa A. Steele on May 6, 2014, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Steele 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, Steele 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. Steele's Education and Employment Background
Steele was born in 1964. In school, she completed the eleventh grade. In the past, Steele engaged in work as a home caregiver, and off-and-on as a production line packager through a temporary work agency.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Steele's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, the ALJ asked Steele what is her biggest obstacle to obtaining and keeping full-time employment. Steele responded that her biggest obstacle is her mental health problems, including having difficulty learning new things or learning at a slow pace. Steele also stated that her problems with anxiety make full-time work difficult. Specially, Steele testified that her anxiety makes her very emotional, causing her to sometimes "lash out" at people. Lastly, Steele indicated that her mental health problems also include having a poor memory.
Next, the ALJ questioned Steele about her physical problems. According to Steele, her primary physical impairments include back pain and migraine headaches. She testified that standing too long causes shooting pain down her back, and into her legs and feet. She also stated that she can sit for only 30 minutes before needing to get up and walk. Steele indicated that she can walk about three blocks before pain and shortness of breath affect her, and require her to rest. With regard to her migraines, Steele explained that she often wakes up with one, and she "can't stand light, noise, or any smell, and I also vomit." In order to alleviate the migraine, she generally takes over-the-counter headache medication, and goes back to sleep for three to four hours, wearing an eye mask. She estimated that she gets approximately five migraines per month. Steele further testified that she had surgery on her right hand, resulting in a loss of grip strength.
2. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Vanessa May with a hypothetical for an individual who is:
limited to performing sedentary work[.]... The worker can stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl only occasionally, cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.... I want you to assume that the worker, through the use of both hands, is able to do all the lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling that would be required by sedentary work, but I want you to assume the worker... [has] no use of the, of the ring finger and the small finger on the dominant right hand, but again she is able to, to handle objects with the right hand. She wouldn't be able to do any, any manipulation of objects where one would need to use those two fingers....
And then finally, I'd like you to assume this worker is able to do only the most simple routine and repetitive types of work, work that doesn't require any close attention to detail, work that is so simple and unchanging that the worker need not respond or adjust or react to any changes... to the work environment.
(Administrative Record at 81-82.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Steele could perform the following jobs: (1) ticket counter, (2) call out operator, and (3) telephone quotation clerk. The ALJ added an additional limitation to the hypothetical for the vocational expert to consider, namely, the individual would need an additional 10 minutes of direct contact with a supervisor, every 2 hours, in order for the individual to remain productive throughout the workday. The vocational expert replied that such a limitation would preclude competitive employment.
C. Steele's Medical History
On December 8, 2005, Steele was referred by her primary care physician to Dr. Robert H. Choi, M.D., for evaluation of low back pain and right leg numbness. In reviewing Steele's symptoms, Dr. Choi noted that:
[Steele] has been having numbness on the right leg over the past 4 months. This usually starts from her low back and then... radiates all the way down to the bottom of her foot. It is tingling and aching. Any activity makes this worse. She feels weak on her low back. She notes some numbness on the right foot. She feels that stress will often make her symptoms worse.
(Administrative Record at 482.) Upon examination, Dr. Choi found that Steele's low back demonstrated "mild diffuse tenderness of the lower lumbar spinal and paraspinal areas on palpation especially on the right side." Dr. Choi diagnosed Steele with S1 radiculopathy on the right side. Dr. Choi ordered an MRI and EMG for further study. Steele returned to Dr. Choi on December 15, 2005. The MRI showed a large disc protrusion at L5 and S1, with some impingement into the S1 nerve roots. The EMG study showed "minimal" denervation. While Dr. Choi felt that surgical intervention would ultimately be necessary, he recommended conservative treatment with a month of physical therapy.
Steele met with Dr. Choi again, on January 16, 2006. Dr. Choi noted that Steele was unable to complete a month of physical therapy. Specifically, Dr. Choi noted that:
[Steele] is working at a new job where she has to lift fairly frequently. I don't think this is a good idea for her back. I will go ahead and take her off of work for a month and get her through some intensive physical therapy to see if this would help her low back pain. If this is not effective, she will likely need a surgical intervention.
(Administrative Record at 480.) Steele returned to Dr. Choi for a follow-up appointment on February 14, 2006. Dr. Choi found that with physical therapy, Steele's "pain has gotten substantially better. Her numbness has also dissipated now." Dr. Choi concluded that surgery was unnecessary, and recommended Steele continue physical therapy exercises at home.
On June 11, 2007, Steele was referred by her primary physician to Dr. Russell Buchanan, M.D., for consultation on back pain, right leg pain, and right foot pain. In reviewing her symptoms, Dr. Buchanan noted that:
[Steele complains] of years long lumbar pain with right foot and leg numbness. She describes the pain as very sharp. She takes medicine to dull the pain. The pain travels down the posterior leg on the right side to the right foot dorsal aspect. Standing, lifting and bending or lying down for any long time causes her worst symptoms. Her pain level is 8 on a scale from 1 to 10 in the lower back up to 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 for the right lower extremity. It lasts for hours to days. It essentially does not go away. Pain pills, rest and heat improve her pain. It is worse with standing, bending and lifting.
(Administrative Record at 501.) Upon examination, Dr. Buchanan found that Steele's gait was "significantly impaired." Dr. Buchanan diagnosed Steele with severe foraminal stenosis due to disc collapse causing L5 radiculopathy bilaterally. Dr. Buchanan also found lumbosacral spondylosis with radiculopathy present. Dr. Buchanan recommended surgery as treatment. Steele decided against surgery, and Dr. Buchanan recommended epidural steroid injections from Dr. Gayathry Inamdar, M.D.
On July 28, 2008, Steele met with Dr. Inamdar complaining of right lower extremity pain and low back pain. Steel described her pain as sharp and stabbing. She rated her pain at 7 out of 10, with 10 being the most severe pain. Upon examination, Dr. Inamdar diagnosed Steele with right lumbar radiculopathy S1 overlapping L5 distribution and lumbar degenerative disc disease at L5-S1. Because Steele did not want to undergo back surgery, Dr. Inamdar recommended epidural steroid injection therapy as treatment. Steele underwent an epidural steroid injection on July 29, 2008. Steele returned to Dr. Inamdar on March 11, 2009, complaining of recurring low back and right leg pain. Dr. Inamdar noted that Steele had "good" pain relief following injections in July 2008. Specifically, Dr. Inamdar ...