United States District Court, D. Nebraska
CHERYL L. TYSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant
For Cheryl L. Tyson, Plaintiff: Mary P. Clarkson, LEAD ATTORNEY, Broom, Clarkson, Lanphier & Yamamoto, Omaha, NE.
For Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant: Robert L. Homan, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE - OMAHA, Omaha, NE.
For Office of General Counsel Social Security Administration, Interested Party: Office of General Counsel Social Security Administ, LEAD ATTORNEY, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION - KANSAS CITY, Kansas City, MO.
John M. Gerrard, United States District Judge.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on plaintiff Cheryl L. Tyson's appeal from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration which awarded her disability insurance benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., effective July 1, 2011. Tyson is seeking past-due benefits. The Court has considered the parties' filings and the administrative record, and will reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand this case for calculation and award of past-due benefits.
Tyson applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits in June 2009. T305. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, and by an administrative law judge (ALJ). T136-52, 166-76. But the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration was presented with new and material evidence, and found that the ALJ had overlooked certain evidence and made factual errors. T162-64. So, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ, and after remand, the ALJ found that Tyson was disabled and entitled to benefits. T11-34.
To determine whether a claimant is entitled to disability benefits, the ALJ performs a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, the claimant has the burden to establish that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. Id.; Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006). If the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity, she will be found not to be disabled; otherwise, at step two, she has the burden to prove she has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. Id. At step three, if the claimant shows that her impairment meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations, she is automatically found disabled and is entitled to benefits. Id. Otherwise, the analysis proceeds to step four, but first, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is used at steps four and five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step four, the claimant has the burden to prove she lacks the RFC to perform her past relevant work. Id.; Gonzales, 465 F.3d at 894. If the claimant can still do her past relevant work, she will be found not to be disabled; otherwise, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, that there are other jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id.
In this case, at step one, the ALJ found that Tyson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of June 24, 2009. T14. At step two, the ALJ found that Tyson had the following severe impairments as of her alleged onset date: alcohol dependence; low back pain/sciatica and asthma, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. T15. The ALJ found that Tyson's alcohol dependence stopped being severe as of August 25, 2010. T15. And the ALJ found that beginning on July 1, 2011, Tyson also had an unspecified cognitive disorder that constituted a severe impairment. T15. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Tyson's impairments met or equaled a presumptively disabling impairment. T15, 25.
In determining Tyson's RFC, and at steps four and five, the ALJ differentiated between Tyson's condition before and after she stopped drinking alcohol. T25. The ALJ found that Tyson's alcohol abuse was material until August 24, 2010--meaning that although she was disabled during that time, she would not have been disabled if she had not been drinking. T18-23. And the ALJ found that as of July 1, 2011, Tyson's mental condition had deteriorated to the point that her RFC included, among other things, an inability to maintain attention, concentration, persistence, and pace over the course of an 8-hour day and 40-hour workweek or equivalent schedule. T31. That limitation meant that she could perform neither her past relevant work nor any other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. T31-34.
But for the period between August 24, 2010 and July 1, 2011, the ALJ found that Tyson was capable of routine, repetitive, unskilled work that did not require maintenance of attention or concentration for extended periods; was able to perform work that did not require more than occasional (not constant or intense) interaction with coworkers, supervisors, or the general public; and was able to work in an environment free from concentrated exposure to fumes, dust, odors, gases, or other known respiratory irritants. T26. But she was still capable of maintaining attention, concentration, persistence, and pace over the course of a workday and workweek, so she could still perform her past relevant work, and could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. T29-31.
So, the ALJ found that Tyson was disabled, but only beginning on July 1, 2011. T34. The Appeals Council denied Tyson's request for review. T1-3. Tyson's complaint seeks review of the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Filing 1.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court reviews a denial of benefits by the Commissioner to determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Teague v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 611, 614 (8th Cir. 2011) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Id. The Court must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the ALJ's decision, and will not reverse an administrative decision simply because some evidence may support the opposite conclusion. Perkins v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 892, 897 (8th Cir. 2011). If, after reviewing the record, the Court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the Court must affirm the ALJ's decision. Id. The Court reviews for substance over form: an arguable deficiency in opinion-writing
technique does not require the Court to set aside an administrative finding when that deficiency had no bearing on the outcome. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 559 (8th Cir. 2011). And the Court defers to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, so long as they are supported by good reasons and substantial evidence. Boettcher v. Astrue, 652 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011).
The issues in this case are relatively narrow. Tyson does not dispute that she was not disabled before June 24, 2009. The Commissioner does not dispute that Tyson was disabled as of July 1, 2011. And it is uncontested that Tyson stopped abusing alcohol as of August 24, 2010. So, the question is whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's findings that (1) Tyson's alcohol abuse was material to her disability between June 24, 2009 and August 24, 2010; and (2) Tyson's ...