United States District Court, District of South Dakota
Opinion Filed June 3, 1998
Formatting courtesy of The State Bar of South Dakota
and South Dakota Continuing Legal Education, Inc.
222 East Capitol Ave.
Pierre, SD 57501
DOUGLAS S. MATTHEWS,
KENNETH S. APFEL,
Commissioner of Social Security,
[1998 DSD 13]
United States District Court
District of South Dakota - Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Filed June 3, 1998.
RICHARD H. BATTEY, CHIEF JUDGE
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
[¶1] On January 11, 1991, plaintiff Douglas S. Matthews (Matthews) filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 USC §§ 401-33, and an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI, 42 USC § 1381-1383. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied Matthews' claim and he appealed to this Court, which affirmed the decision of the ALJ on January 11, 1994. Matthews subsequently reapplied for benefits on December 21, 1994. A hearing was held before an ALJ on August 1, 1996. The ALJ denied Matthews' claim and the Appeals Council declined review. Matthews filed a complaint in this court on December 24, 1997. Matthews alleges an onset date of May 1989.
[¶2] Matthews was born on October 27, 1965. He is thirty-two years old. AR 511. He is married and has one daughter. AR 512. Matthews earned a GED and acquired two associate degrees (applied business management and general education studies) from National American University. AR 39. He testified at the hearing that he was currently taking accounting and statistics courses. AR 43. At the time of his second application he was imprisoned for conviction of a felony. AR 513.
[¶3] Matthews enlisted in the Army National Guard in March 1987, was discharged from service in March 1990, and put on temporary duty retirement leave until November 1992. AR 425-27; 567. He was a private first class as a carpentry masonry specialist. AR 427. His back problems stem from his time in the military. AR 61. Matthews states that he still suffers from lower back pain and is limited in activity due to the same.
[¶4] According to Matthews, his lower back problem limits him to 15 minutes of sitting and 5 minutes of standing. AR 47-48. He takes no prescription medication for the pain but occasionally takes a Tylenol. AR 44, 66. He wears a brace to support his back about 90 percent of the time. AR 45. To relieve his pain he takes hot showers and lies down. AR 44.
[¶5] In addition to the back pain Matthews testified that he suffers from various mental impairments which affect his ability to concentrate. AR 50-54. His cognitive disability prevents him from performing rudimentary math and also causes him to at times transpose letters and figures when writing them down. AR 52-53. He also attributes some problems with coordination to his mental disability. AR 53. The two degrees he received from National College took four years to attain, double the time it is supposed to take. AR 76. He maintained a "C" average but also served some time on academic probation for his struggles in mathematics courses. He receives no counseling for his mental condition and takes no medication. AR 65.
[¶6] Matthews testified that on a typical day he attends classes for two to four hours, studies in spurts of 15 minutes, eats dinner, watches TV, and goes to bed at around 10:30 - 11:00. AR 54-55. He sometimes cooks dinner for himself and his wife. AR 56. He attends movies but often has to leave in the middle due to the pain of sitting for extended periods. AR 57-58. He and his wife usually do the shopping on weekends which involves shopping for several hours at a time. AR 60.
[¶7] His wife, Jacqueline Matthews, testified that she was unaware of Matthews' mental disability when they first met and when they were married in 1990. AR 70. She indicated that he was very self-confident and a leader until his back injury. Since that time he has struggled to get by mentally. She helps him significantly in his schoolwork and around the house. AR 74.
[¶8] Dr. Virginia Boesen performed a mental evaluation on Matthews and concluded that he was "within the Average range but his test patterning shows wide discrepancies in abilities and skills." AR 705. In some areas Matthews has cognitive abilities in excess of the average (i.e., comprehension and verbal concepts) and in others he has severe mental disability (i.e., memory). AR. 704 Dr. Boesen indicated that Matthews' cognitive shortcomings would "significantly interfere with his performance in an employment situation." Id. She concluded that Matthews could be a contributing member of society with proper rehabilitation and support devices. AR 705-06.
[¶9] On April 21, 1993, Dr. James C. Gardiner, a clinical psychologist evaluated Matthews as well. He found that Matthews' "overall mental abilities would be expected to fall in at least the average range." AR 742. Dr. Gardiner also indicated that Matthews showed "moderate impairment in spelling, verbal learning, verbal attention, verbal concentration, right-sided motor strength and dexterity, sequencing, set shifting, visual attention, visual concentration, visual-spatial reasoning, and complex visual problem solving." Id. Dr. Gardiner concluded that these results suggest a "generalized dysfunction." Id.
[¶10] In June of 1993, Dr. James W. King, a neuro-optometrist examined Matthews. AR 736. Dr. King noted that Matthews did suffer from some visual/motor skills such as eye-hand coordination and visual tracking and also transposed some letters. AR 737. However, he also noted that Matthews' performance improved "greatly" with learning lenses. AR. 736.
[¶11] Dr. Donald Burnap, a psychiatrist, evaluated Matthews on January 16, 1995. AR 737. Dr. Burnap indicated that given his mental condition it would be "impossible for [Matthews] to overcome his emotional problems and somehow find and maintain a job." AR 737. He recommended that Matthews be given disability benefits. Id.
III. DECISION OF THE ALJ
[¶12] The ALJ first noted that Matthews had previously filed a claim for benefits which was denied at all stages, including by this Court. The ALJ then underwent an analysis of the evidence presented by Matthews to determine if there existed good cause to reopen the prior applications. AR 16-18. He concluded that while there was some new evidence presented it was either cumulative or not material and thus Matthews did not meet the burden of showing good cause to reopen the prior applications. AR 18. Therefore, while Matthews alleged an onset date of 1989, since there was no new material evidence, the ALJ evaluated Matthews' claims from the date of the prior decision on July 20, 1992. Id.
[¶13] In assessing the sequential process(fn1) which is required when determining if an individual is disabled pursuant to the Social Security Act, the ALJ first concluded that Matthews has not performed any substantial gainful activity since the date of the previous decision, July 20, 1992. Second, the ALJ found that the degenerative arthritis from which Matthews suffered constitutes a severe impairment. However, in the opinion of the ALJ, the neurogenic bladder, headaches, and alleged vision problems were not severe as they caused no functional limitations and had been resolved by the time of the hearing. AR 19. The ALJ also concluded, at step three, that the severe medical impairment which Matthews suffers from did not fit within one of the listed severe impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P. AR 20.
[¶14] At the fourth step in determining whether Matthews was disabled the ALJ considered whether he could perform past work or other work within the national economy. In reaching a conclusion, the ALJ concluded that Matthews' testimony as to his subjective complaints and his limitations was not fully credible. In assessing credibility, the ALJ considered the medical evidence contained in the record (including the records of Dr. Gary Russell, Dr. Dale Berkebile, Dr. Gardiner, and Dr. Burnap), Matthews' own testimony concerning the degree and duration of the pain, Matthews' daily activities, lack of treatment for the pain, personal observation by the ALJ during the hearing, the testimony of Matthews' wife, and the previous record. AR 20-24 The ALJ found that Matthews could not perform his past relevant work in the Army National Guard. AR 24.
[¶15] In the final step of the analysis the ALJ concluded that given Matthews' age, education, and past work experience there were significant work opportunities for him. The ALJ took judicial notice of the fact that there are 200 occupations which Matthews had the ability to pursue based upon his residual functional capacity to pursue sedentary work. AR 25 (citing Section 201.00, Appendix 2, Medical Vocational Guidelines. Consequently, the ALJ found that Matthews was not disabled through the date of his decision.
IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW
[¶16] The decision of the ALJ must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. 42 USC § 405(g); Metz v. Shalala, 49 F3d 374, 376 (8th Cir. 1995) (citing Sullins v. Shalala, 25 F3d 601, 603 (8th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 573 U.S. 1076, 115 S. Ct. 722, 130 L. Ed. 2d 627 (1995)); Smith v. Shalala, 987 F2d 1371, 1373 (8th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support such a conclusion. Shannon v. Chater, 54 F3d 484, 486 (8th Cir. 1995) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971)). See also Onstead v. Sullivan, 962 F2d 803 (8th Cir. 1992) (quoting Whitehouse v. Sullivan, 949 F2d 1005, 1007 (8th Cir. 1991)). Review by this Court extends beyond a limited search for the existence of evidence supporting the Commissioner's decision to include giving consideration to evidence in the record which fairly detracts from the decision. Brockman v. Sullivan, 987 F2d 1344, 1346 (8th Cir. 1993); Locher v. Sullivan, 968 F2d 725, 727 (8th Cir. 1992); Turley v. Sullivan, 939 F2d 524, 528 (8th Cir. 1991).
[¶17] However, the Court's role under section 405(g) is to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the decision of the Commissioner and not to re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo. Murphy v. Sullivan, 953 F2d 383, 384 (8th Cir. 1992). Furthermore, a reviewing court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision "merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision." Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993); Smith v. Shalala, 987 F2d at 1374 (citing Locher, 986 F2d at 727 (quoting Baker v. Heckler, 730 F2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984))). The Court must review the Commissioner's decision to determine if an error of law has been committed. Smith v. Sullivan, 982 F2d 308, 311 (8th Cir. 1992); Nettles v. Schweiker, 714 F2d 833, 836 (8th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's conclusions of law are only persuasive, not binding, on the reviewing court. Smith v. Sullivan, 982 F2d at 311; Satterfield v. Mathews, 483 F. Supp. 20, 22 (E.D. Ark. 1979), aff'd per curiam, 615 F2d 1288, 1289 (8th Cir. 1980). As long as the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, then this Court cannot reverse the decision of the ALJ even if the Court would have decided it differently. Smith v. Shalala, 987 F2d at 1374.
[¶18] In support of his motion for summary judgment, Matthews contends the ALJ's decision was in error for the following reasons: (1) the ALJ substituted his own opinion for the opinions offered by the medical experts; (2) failure to apply proper standards in assessing Matthews' ability to perform a full range of sedentary work; (3) failure to properly apply standards for assessing Matthews' residual function capacity; (4) failure to use a vocational expert; (5) failure to complete a Psychiatric Review Techniques Form (PRTF). Plaintiff's Brief at 7. Each argument will be addressed in turn.
[¶19] A. Evaluation of Medical Evidence
[¶20] Plaintiff contends that the ALJ disregarded the relevant medical testimony and instead used his own opinion to reach a conclusion that Matthews' mental impairments were not disabling. Plaintiff's Brief at 8-10. The Court disagrees.
[¶21] Matthews takes issue with the way the ALJ's determination that the medical evidence, combined with Matthews' testimony and the testimony of his wife, did not support a finding that Matthews was disabled. The record indicates that the ALJ painstakingly reviewed the medical evidence and found that the medical reports were often internally inconsistent and inconsistent with Matthews' testimony of his daily activities. AR 24. Moreover, the ALJ rightfully downplayed the conclusions reached by some of the medical reports that Matthews was disabled as unsupported by objective findings. Both Dr. Gardiner and Dr. Boesen concluded that Matthews was disabled or would be hard pressed to maintain gainful employment. However, these legal conclusions are not binding on the ALJ. 20 CFR § § 404.1527 (e)(2) and 416.927(e)(2) (noting that the Commissioner has the final responsibility for determining whether an individual is disabled. Special significance will not be placed on opinions by treating physicians that an individual is disabled); Barrett v. Shalala, 38 F3d 1019, 1023 (8th Cir 1994) (noting that conclusory statements as to disability made by a physician need not be given special deference). Both the report of Dr. Gardiner and Dr. Boesen indicate that Matthews possessed average abilities. AR 654, 703. Their conclusory opinions are neither supported by their own conclusions or by the testimony of Matthews. The ALJ's accordance of lesser significance to the medical reports is supported by substantial evidence in the record.
[¶22] B. Failure to Apply SSR 96-9p
[¶23] Matthews' second contention is that the ALJ's application of the guideline grid rules 201.24 and 201.27 was inappropriate since the Medical-Vocational Rules govern only claimants who suffer from exertional impairments. Plaintiff's Brief at 10. However, given the weight assigned to the medical reports by the ALJ his use of the grid was proper.
[¶24] At the heart of Matthews' complaint is his disagreement with the ALJ about the significance of the medical reports from Drs. Boesen, King, and Gardiner. Each of these doctors indicated that Matthews was average in most respects. Granted, there was some differentiation in some portions of their testing which indicated that Matthews may have been below average in some areas. This evidence, however, pales in comparison to the evidence of Matthews' ability to perform under working conditions. His own testimony and daily activity indicate that Matthews has significant cognitive abilities. He has earned two associate degrees and at the time of the hearing was enrolled in rather difficult courses. This evidence simply does not support a finding that he is disabled. As a result, the ALJ properly downplayed the medical evidence as inconsistent and in some respects inapposite to Matthews' contentions.
[¶25] C. Failure to Apply SSR 96-8p
[¶26] Matthews next argues that the ALJ should have undergone a more complete analysis of his residual functional capacity to perform a full range of sedentary work. Plaintiff's Brief at 11-13. Plaintiff relies on SSR 96-8p in support of his contention that the ALJ is required to undergo a "function-by-function" evaluation of his ability to complete sedentary jobs. Id. at 12. Matthews takes issue with the ALJ's assessment of the medical reports of Drs. Boesen, Gardiner, and King. Id. at 12-13.
[¶27] The ALJ thoroughly examined the medical records in this case and determined that they were at most inconclusive. As mentioned above, each medical report contained evaluations of Matthews which prevent a finding that he is disabled and contradicts his assertions. The ALJ carefully considered the medical reports when determining that Matthews could perform a full range of sedentary work. Additionally, the ALJ relied on the testimony of Matthews as to his daily activities to determine that Matthews possesses the ability to perform unskilled work. AR 24. Simply put, the ALJ was not convinced that Matthews suffered from a significant nonexertional impairment. As a result, the only limits placed upon him were due to his lower back injury which precluded him from doing heavy work but would not prevent him from sedentary work. The Court finds that the record as a whole supports the ALJ's findings in this regard.
[¶28] D. Failure to Use a Vocational Expert
[¶29] Matthews also argues that since he alleged significant nonexertional impairments the ALJ was required to use the assistance of a vocational expert. Plaintiff's Brief at 14 (citing Foreman v. Callahan, 122 F3d 24, 26 (8th Cir. 1997)). Foreman does support plaintiff's proposition that when a claimant suffers from nonexertional infirmities only the assistance of a vocational expert is required. However, Foreman is easily distinguished from the present case.
[¶30] First, Matthews asserted that he was severely limited by lower back pain as well as some nonexertional impairments. Use of the grid is proper when exertional limitations form a significant basis for the claim. Second, the ALJ in this case determined that the testimony and medical evidence indicated that Matthews did not suffer from a significant mental impairment. At the time of the hearing, Matthews was attending college, had already received two associate degrees, and did well in difficult classes such as Japanese. The medical evidence primarily indicated that he was in the normal range for most cognitive skills and his I.Q. was average. In Foreman the claimant had an I.Q. well-below average, could not drive a car, suffered from depression, was anti-social, and had attempted suicide. Foreman, 122 F3d at 25. Third, the court in Foreman was critical of the ALJ's determination that the claimant's mental impairments did not limit his ability. Id. at 26. In the instant case, the ALJ's decision that Matthews' mental impairments are not significant, as mentioned above, is amply supported by the record. Accordingly, the use of the guidelines grid to determine the availability of jobs for Matthews was not in error.
[¶31] E. Failure to Complete a PRTF
[¶32] Matthews asserts that the ALJ erred by not completing a PRTF when faced with Matthews' allegations of mental impairments. Plaintiff's Brief at 14-15. Plaintiff cites Eighth Circuit law which held that an ALJ's failure to complete a PRTF was grounds for a remand. Montgomery v. Shalala, 30 F3d 98, 100 (8th Cir. 1994). However, the holding of that case was based upon a well-documented and developed history of depression and mental illness. Id. (noting that the consultation sheet indicated two treatments for depression and a suicide attempt as well as hospital records that noted a "history of depression"). In this case while there was evidence that Matthews had some mental abnormalities, the ALJ decided that completion of a PRTF was not necessitated. This decision was not in error. At the time of the hearing Matthews had received no treatment for his alleged mental infirmities, was taking no medication them, was attending college and had received two associate degrees. Additionally, the medical evidence indicated that Matthews was overall average in his mental abilities. This evidence did not support Matthews' claims and did not warrant the completion of a PRTF.
[¶33] The gist of Matthews' contentions in this motion for summary judgment center around the ALJ's evaluation of the medical reports. The ALJ determined that the medical evidence did not clearly support Matthews' contention that he was disabled. Every doctor who examined Matthews concluded that his abilities overall were average or easily correctable. The medical evidence combined with Matthews' success in college and ongoing course study undercut his argument that he was mentally impaired. Also instructive was his daily activity, lack of medication, and lack of treatment for his alleged infirmities. As a result, there was substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the ALJ's determination that Matthews was not disabled according to the regulations.
[¶34] Accordingly, it is hereby
[¶35] ORDERED that Matthews' motion for summary judgment (Docket #10) is denied.
[¶36] IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Docket #12) is granted. Judgment shall be issued in favor of defendant and against plaintiff. Plaintiff's complaint shall be dismissed.
1.The steps are summarized as follows:
(1) First, a determination is made whether claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, she must be found not disabled.
(2) If claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the next question is whether she is suffering from a severe impairment, defined as one that significantly limits the ability to perform basic work-related functions. If a severe impairment is not found, claimant must be found not disabled.
(3) If there is a severe impairment, and it is one listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P, claimant is found disabled on the medical evidence alone. [ See Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Part 404, 20 CFR §§ 404.1501 et seq. (1997)].
(4) If the impairment is not listed in Appendix 1, the next inquiry is whether claimant can perform relevant past work. If she can, a finding of no disability is required.
(5) Finally, if claimant cannot perform relevant past work, the question then becomes whether she can nevertheless do other jobs that exist in the national economy, despite her having a severe impairment that prevents return to her previous work.
McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982). See also 20 CFR § 404.1520; 1 Harvey L. McCormick, Social Security Claims and Procedures § 410, at 346 (4th ed. 1991).