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Brace v. Astrue

August 27, 2009

LARRY A. BRACE, APPELLANT,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colloton, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: May 13, 2009

Before RILEY, SMITH, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.

Larry A. Brace appeals the decision of the district court*fn1 upholding the denial of his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. We affirm.

I.

Brace was born in 1959. From 1987 to 2001, he worked as a product handler for a beverage company in Waverly, Iowa. He was convicted of a drug offense in 2001, and spent the following year in prison. While incarcerated, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed medication. Prison medical staff noted that he was able to maintain "above average" to "excellent" institutional adjustment throughout his imprisonment. Following his release, Brace mowed lawns for a landscaping company during the spring and summer of 2003.

Since then, Brace has been unemployed, and he has received frequent medical attention for bipolar disorder and recurring pain in his legs and feet. In December 2004, Dr. Ann Broderick, one of Brace's primary-care physicians, gave the following opinion on his ability to work:

He has two major medical conditions that have been contributing to his pain syndromes: diabetic neuropathy and fibromylagia [sic]. He has multiple co-morbidities that make it difficult for him to cope with work. The most important of these illnesses is bipolar disease. His mental impairment makes him completely unable to cope with his physical impairment. This point bears emphasis because of [sic] on the face of it, he is not physically impaired to a degree that would make him unemployable but his refractory bipolar illness and depression make him unemployable.

Dr. Broderick identified specific work-related limitations caused by Brace's physical and mental impairments. According to Dr. Broderick, Brace could not lift more than ten pounds frequently, could not stand for more than ten minutes at a time, and could sit for only about two hours in the course of an average work day. Dr. Broderick gave a similar assessment of Brace's capabilities in October 2006.

Brace applied for benefits under both Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., and Title XVI of that Act, id. § 1381 et seq., claiming disability beginning September 30, 2001. Title II provides for the payment of disability insurance benefits to disabled individuals, id. § 423(a), and Title XVI provides for the payment of supplemental security income to disabled individuals whose incomes fall below a certain level. Id. §§ 1381a, 1382(a). Under both titles, an individual qualifies as disabled "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also id. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Social Security Administration ("SSA") determined that Brace was not disabled, and denied his application initially and on reconsideration.

Brace requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), who denied his application in August 2006. The ALJ did not credit Dr. Broderick's opinion that Brace's medical condition rendered him "unemployable." Rather, the ALJ found Dr. Broderick's diagnosis of diabetic neuropathy "questionable," given that some of Brace's other physicians were unsure whether he had the condition. The ALJ also determined that Brace's bipolar disorder was "controlled or controllable by medication," and that any occasion when it was not controlled was "mainly if not entirely" due to medication noncompliance, for which Brace had "no good excuse." The ALJ concluded that Brace was not under a disability, but rather was capable of a wide range of light-to-medium work. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Brace could work as a surveillance systems operator, document preparer, or mail addresser. The SSA's Appeals Council denied Brace's request for review in September 2007, following consideration of additional evidence submitted after the ALJ's ruling. Consequently, the ALJ's opinion became the final decision of the Commissioner.

Brace sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. The district court determined that the ALJ reasonably discounted Dr. Broderick's medical opinion, because her opinion was inconsistent with the record as a whole. Concluding that substantial evidence supported the Commissioner's finding that Brace was not under a disability, the district court upheld the Commissioner's decision to deny Brace's application.

II.

We review de novo the district court's decision upholding the Commissioner's denial of benefits. Coleman v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 767, 770 (8th Cir. 2007). The Commissioner's finding that Brace was not under a disability is "conclusive" if "supported by substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see id. § 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence "means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation omitted). It is "'something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative ...


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