United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
STEPHANIE A. HENZE, 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 Stephanie A. Henze on June 13, 2014, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her application for Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Henze asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide her SSI benefits. In the alternative, Henze 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. Henze's Education and Employment Background
Henze was born in 1971. In school, she completed the eleventh grade. She has not earned a GED. In the past, she worked as a general cashier and a sign printer.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Henze's Testimony
At the administrative hearing, Henze explained that she stopped working because "I couldn't handle being on my feet. I had problems with my back[.]" She also stated that "my kids were young and the wage that I was making really didn't make any sense because we were having to pay child care so I stayed home with my kids." The administrative record shows that Henze has not worked since 2000. The ALJ inquired how she had been supporting herself over the years. Henze testified that:
Well, I had child support for a little while. I've had to get help from different - like Operation Threshold, St. Vincent DePaul. I do get food stamps. I've had to sell some furniture to get by the last couple months. I haven't paid my house payment in several months. I'm facing foreclosure right now.
(Administrative Record at 45.)
The ALJ asked Henze what she does during a typical day. Henze responded that:
I can do light housework. Like I dust. My daughter does the dishes so, once they're dry, I'll put them away.... I had three people pass away in a very short period of time. I, because of that - it was my uncle, my grandmother and my grandpa that all passed away, I inherited a lot of junk so I - my house is a wreck because I can't do a lot myself as far as moving stuff but my daughter will put a box up on the couch for me and I'll go through the pictures or whatever that are in the box. I have pets so, you know, I'm letting the dogs out. I call and check on my mother, that kind of stuff.
(Administrative Record at 45-46.) Henze also stated that her daughter does the laundry. According to Henze, her daughter "will bring up the basket and set it next to me and I can fold it but no way could I carry laundry up and down the stairs." She stated that she can prepare meals in a microwave or "something that doesn't require me standing too long." She also stated that her daughter does the majority of grocery shopping because going through a grocery store "that's just too much for me, all that walking[.]"
Henze's attorney questioned Henze about her functional abilities:
Q:... How long can you stand and what happens after you've done it?
A: I guess it's about 10, 15 minutes. Like I was with my daughter last week and we were at the Dollar Store and, for some reason, it was really busy and I was standing in line and this was after walking through the store to get a couple things and the pain got so unbearable that I just told her to take over and stand in line, I had to go to the car.
Q: And what about sitting? You've been sitting and you've alternated every, I don't know how many minutes, but you stood up four or five times - how long can you sit at one time?
A: It's about 15, 20 minutes before I have to change positions. Usually, at home, I lay down to take the pressure off the disks. I know, for a fact, that today, I got to go home and lay down. It's killing me sitting here.
Q: Okay. And how long will you have to lay down before you feel better?
A: Well, it's about 15 minutes before the lying down then starts to - I just have to change positions every few minutes because, I don't know, there's no comfort. I'm constantly hurting. Sometimes it's just unbearable. It gets unbearable....
Q:... Do you have problems with walking?
A: Yeah. I could walk out to my mailbox and back. I know no longer could walk in let's say Hy-Vee or Walmart, I mean, and I know this from trying, you know, because I thought the surgeries would work, that I would be better, and, you know, I had to leave because I just couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't walk through the store.
(Administrative Record at 50-51.) Henze also testified that she has difficulty lifting things because lifting causes "a lot" of pain in her lower back. When asked whether she believed she was capable of working full-time, Henze replied "I can't see what kind of job I could do. I'm miserable. I'm in pain constantly."
2. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Elizabeth Albrecht with a hypothetical for an individual who:
can lift and/or carry, push and/or pull 10 pounds and stand and/or walk for two hours in an eight hour workday; and sit with normal breaks for a total of six hours in an eight hour workday. The individual can stoop, kneel, crouch, climb ramps and stairs and crawl on an occasional basis. The individual would not be able to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The individual would not be able to work in temperature extremes or high humidity. The individual would not be able to work at unprotected heights or around hazards. In addition, the individual would be able to interact with others on a superficial basis. The individual could perform simple and some detailed tasks.
(Administrative Record at 61.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Henze could not perform her past relevant work, but could perform the following jobs: (1) addresser, (2) charge account clerk, and (3) production work final assembler.
C. Henze's Medical History
On January 29, 2010, Henze met with Dr. Robert Federhofer, D.O., for an epidural steroid injection in her back. Dr. Federhofer noted that Henze "had a number of injections with Dr. Inamdar. She has performed facet joint injections in the mid and lower lumbar spine." Dr. Federhofer further noted that he also had administered multiple facet joint injections to Henze in the past. Henze admitted to Dr. Federhofer that the injections provided little pain relief. Dr. Federhofer reviewed an MRI from October 2009, indicating bulging discs at L3-4 and L4-5, neuroforminal narrowing, asymmetric bulging to the left at L3-4 and generalized bulging annulus fibrosis at L4-5, and moderate neuroforminal narrowing at the left at L3-4 and to a lesser degree on the right. Dr. Federhofer diagnosed Henze with low back pain and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. Dr. Federhofer administered a lumbar epidural steroid injection at L2-3. Unless the injection provided significant pain relief, Dr. Federhofer opined that "[a]t this point, I really do not recommend further epidural injections or facet joint injections. I do not think they are productive."
On February 16, 2011, Henze underwent surgery on her back. Dr. Russell Buchanan, M.D., performed the surgery and diagnosed Henze with left L3-4 disc herniation, causing L4 radiculopathy. Dr. Buchanan performed a left hemilminotomy, medial facetectomy, partial discectomy, and decompression of the left L4 nerve root. Following the surgery, on March 9, 2011, Henze reported ...