United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
STEVE R. PHILLIS, 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 3) filed by Plaintiff Steve R. Phillis on May 8, 2014, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny his application for Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Phillis asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide him SSI benefits. In the alternative, Phillis requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.
II. PRINCIPLES OF REVIEW
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). 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).").
A. Phillis' Education and Employment Background
Phillis was born in 1957. He did not graduate from high school. He dropped out in the tenth grade. However, he later earned a GED. Phillis also attended one year of college in 2001. In the past, Phillis worked as a truck driver and delivery service/courier driver.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Phillis' Testimony
At the administrative hearing, Phillis testified that he stopped working due to panic attacks. He described his panic attacks as similar to asthma attacks. According to Phillis, when a panic attack arises, he has difficulty breathing and gets weak. He also stated that he is unable to drive when a panic attack occurs. Phillis indicated that his panic attacks last anywhere from a few minutes to as long as two hours. His panic attacks also sometimes cause fatigue and headaches.
Phillis further stated that his work history has also been sporadic due to anxiety and left shoulder pain. Phillis' attorney questioned Phillis further about his left arm pain:
Q:... What do you notice the most often, the problem with your left arm?
A: A lot of pain. Weakness.
Q: Okay. Where is the pain you're feeling?
A: In the shoulder....
Q: What level would you say it is most of the time?
A: If 10 is the worst, it's a 10 or worse. Mostly 9, 10.
Q: And have you had any help with it? Have you had any procedures done on it?
A: Just cortisone shots every four months.
Q: Do you get some relief from the cortisone shots?
Q: So how long will the relief last before you get back to a 10/high level.
A: Two, three months.
(Administrative Record at 43.)
In May 2011, Phillis had a minor stroke. He described his stroke as follows:
What happened was I just was in the bathroom and just blacked out, went to the floor. After that, weakness in the left shoulder, my left arm, left leg, left side. Been a lot worse as far as memory, comprehension.
(Administrative Record at 42.) He stated that his primary memory problems are with short-term memory and recollection. Phillis also has been diagnosed with depression. He described his mood as "pretty down" and "negative." He testified that "[i]t's just ...