United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
LARRY E. OPITZ, 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 Larry E. Opitz on September 29, 2014, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny his application for Title II disability insurance benefits. Opitz asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide him disability insurance benefits. In the alternative, Opitz requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings. On October 31, 2014, both parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge in this matter pursuant to the provisions set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
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 "must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.'" Bernard v. Colvin, 774 F.3d 482, 486 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577 (8th Cir. 2006)). Substantial evidence is defined as less than a preponderance of the evidence, but is relevant evidence a "reasonable mind would find adequate to support the commissioner's conclusion.'" Grable v. Colvin, 770 F.3d 1196, 1201 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Davis v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 962, 966 (8th Cir. 2011)).
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 Draper v. Colvin, 779 F.3d 556, 559 (8th Cir. 2015) ("If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusions, th[e] court does not reverse even if it would reach a different conclusion, or merely because substantial evidence also supports the contrary outcome.' Travis v. Astrue, 477 F.3d 1037, 1040 (8th Cir. 2007)."); Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014) ("As long as substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner's decision, [the court] may not reverse it because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because [the court] would have decided the case differently.' Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002).").
A. Opitz's Education and Employment Background
Opitz was born in 1959. He graduated from high school. While in school, he did not participate in any special education classes. In the past, Opitz worked as a truck driver.
B. Vocational Expert's Testimony from the March 7, 2013 Administrative Hearing
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Julie A. Svec with a hypothetical for an individual with:
no exertional postural manipulative limitations who is limited to simple repetitive tasks and occasional complex tasks, no interaction with the public, no employment requiring exchanges of - of cash. No employments requiring reading of detailed instructions[.]...
(Administrative Record at 83.) The vocational expert responded that under such limitations, Opitz could perform his past work as a truck driver. The ALJ provided the vocational expert with a second hypothetical:
The second hypothetical individual [has] no exertional postural manipulative limitations. Does have the... ability to do constant, simple repetitive tasks and occasional complex, however, cannot maintain concentration on a consistent basis for more than one hour at a time.... [N]o employments with interaction with the public, only occasional superficial interactions with co-employees, no employments requiring exchange of cash, no employments requiring retail or reading of detailed instructions.
(Administrative Record at 83). The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Opitz would be precluded from competitive employment. Next, the ALJ inquired:
Consider a hypothetical individual with the limitations... described in hypothetical one w[ith] the additional limitation that the individual could not read above the second-grade level, are there any employments with the... local or national economies where an individual aged 48 to 52 with a high school education, past work experience of [Opitz] and limitations I just described?
(Administrative Record at 85.) The vocational expert testified that under such limitations, Opitz could perform the following jobs: (1) cleaner, (2) laundry worker, and (3) kitchen helper. Finally, the ALJ provided the vocational expert with the following hypothetical:
we have an individual who can lift, carry occasionally up to 20 pounds, frequently can stand or walk six hours of an eight-hour work day, sit about six hours of an eight-hour work day[.] Limited to - cognitively capable of constant simple repetitive tasks, no interaction with the public, occasional superficial interaction with the coworkers. No employments requiring exchanges [of cash]... [and no] employments requiring reading of detailed instructions.
(Administrative Record at 86.) According to the vocational expert, under such limitations, Opitz could perform the following light, unskilled work: (1) folder, (2) laundry sorter, and (3) housekeeper.
C. Opitz's Medical History
On December 20, 2008, Opitz met with Dr. Gregory Hotsenpiller, M.D., Ph.D., complaining of depression and ADHD. Opitz admitted to Dr. Hotsenpiller that he used methamphetamine in the past for numerous years as a truck driver because it "helped him feel normal' in his work performance and daily functioning." According to Opitz, he has been substance free for five years. Opitz claimed chronic issues with concentration and being inattentive/disorganized. He also indicated that he has developed problems with mood, energy, and motivation. Educationally, Dr. Hotsenpiller noted that Opitz "completed high school although he states his mother did most of the work for him and he tested as seventh grade level of reading/writing." Upon examination, Dr. Hotsenpiller diagnosed Opitz with major depressive disorder, possible history of ADHD, and history of ...