United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
MARILYN E. HOLMES FOR MEREDITH HOLMES (DECEASED), Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
JON STUART SCOLES, Chief Magistrate Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the Amended Complaint (docket number 4) filed by Plaintiff Marilyn E. Holmes ("Marilyn") on August 17, 2014, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her daughter, Meredith Holmes' ("Meredith") application for Title II disability insurance benefits. Marilyn asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and find that Meredith was disabled and entitled to benefits. In the alternative, Marilyn 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. Holmes' Education and Employment Background
Meredith Holmes was born in 1971. She did not graduate from high school, but later earned a GED. Her past work included daycare worker, computer repair technician, cashier, telemarketer, hotel front desk attendant, hand packager, and hotel room service worker.
B. Vocational Expert's Testimony from the Administrative Hearing
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Deborah A. Determan with a hypothetical for an individual who:
can lift or carry occasionally 50 pounds, frequently 25 pounds, stand or walk six hours of an eight-hour workday, sit six hours of an eight-hour workday. Limited to simple, repetitive tasks with no more than occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, or supervisors.
(Administrative Record at 80-81.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Meredith could not perform her past relevant work. The vocational expert testified, however, that Meredith could perform the following jobs: (1) laundry worker, (2) cook/helper, and (3) production soldering worker. The ALJ provided the vocational expert with a second hypothetical for an individual who can:
Lift or carry occasionally 20 pounds, frequently 10; stand or walk four hours of an eight-hour workday, with the understanding the individual can stand or walk no more than one hour continuously; sit six hours of an eight-hour workday; never climb ladders, occasionally stairs; no more than simple repetitive tasks; occasional interaction with the public, supervisors, and coworkers[.]... Avoid concentrated exposure to hazardous work environment.
(Administrative Record at 83.) Again, the vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Meredith could not perform her past relevant work. The vocational expert testified, however, that Meredith could perform the following light sedentary jobs: (1) addresser, (2) information clerk, and (3) document preparer.
C. Meredith's Medical History
On May 15, 2009, Meredith was admitted to the Mental Health Institute ("MHI") in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, on referral from St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dr. Martin W. Carpenter, M.D., described Meredith's "history of present illness" as follows:
Meredith stated she has had severe substance abuse problems since 2006. She was consumed with using "crack, " but has not used for the past 6-9 months. She recently switched to using methamphetamine which eventually got her into legal problems. In 2/2007, her children were taken from her and this caused depression and anxiety to increase. It is documented that she has current problems with medication non compliance and keeping follow-up appointments when she is not institutionalized. She adamantly does not want to be here because she cannot smoke while she is here. She describes her current mood as extremely anxious and her sleep is horrible. Her appetite is fair, she has no energy, no interest, some guilt and she endorses problems with memory and concentration. Her anxiety is high and she does have occasional panic attacks, but she cannot elaborate on this. She endorses mania. She denies suicidal or homicidal ideation. She endorses posttraumatic stress. She denies any eating disorders or obsessive compulsive disease. She stated she hears the radio and people talking in her head. In a darkened room she also sees "shadow people."
(Administrative Record at 635.) Dr. Carpenter further noted that Meredith had a past psychiatric history of depression, severe anxiety, and thought disorder. Lastly, Dr. Carpenter indicated that Meredith started using drugs when she was 15, including methamphetamine, crack, marijuana, heroin, LSD, and cocaine.
Dr. Carpenter opined that Meredith "seemed to improve" over the course of her treatment at MHI. She was treated primarily with medication. At the time of discharge, Meredith was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder, methamphetamine abuse, generalized anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Her GAF score at admission was 30, and upon discharge it was 50. Dr. Carpenter opined that Meredith's prognosis was "fair." She was discharged on June 15, 2009, and ordered to continue her medications. Additionally, she was discharged to outpatient care at the Area Substance Abuse Council in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
On September 23, 2009, Meredith was referred by Disability Determination Services ("DDS") to Dr. Danice F. Klimek, M.D., for a consultative examination. Dr. Klimek reviewed Meredith's medical history as follows:
She states she began having problems with her feet in 2007 and was initially seen by Dr. Knudson. She was diagnosed with a bone spur on the right foot and underwent surgery to have this removed.... She states she was then seen again in the Summer of 2008 by a doctor at Mercy Hospital and diagnosed with neuropathy of both feet.... She states that she is currently being followed by Dr. Knudson at the Iowa Foot and Ankle Clinic and continues to use medication to assist with her pain, which does not seem to help. She complains of constant pain in both heels, which is made worse with weight ...