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Scott v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 12, 2018

Tanisha Sherri Scott, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          James H. Greeman, Esq., Greeman Toomey PLLC, counsel for Plaintiff.

          Ann M. Bildtsen, Esq., United States Attorney's Office, counsel for Defendant.


          BECKY R. THORSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Tanisha Scott seeks judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, in accordance with D. Minn. LR 7.2(c)(1). (Doc. Nos. 14, 17.) For the reasons stated below, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment be denied and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted.


         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on June 24, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of April 6, 2010. (Tr. 196.)[1] The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's application on November 22, 2013, and again after reconsideration on April 10, 2014. (Tr. 105, 110.) At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 24, 2015. (Tr. 27, 113- 15.) The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application on July 31, 2015, and the Social Security Appeals Council denied her request for review on July 22, 2016. (Tr. 10-12, 1-4, 7-9.) The Appeals Council's denial of review made the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         On September 23, 2016, Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. No. 1.) On December 8, 2016, Defendant filed an Answer along with a certified copy of the administrative record. (Doc. Nos. 11, 12.) The parties have now filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to the Local Rules. (Doc. Nos. 14, 17.) In her motion, Plaintiff alleges three errors made by the ALJ. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to assign appropriate weight to the treating physician's opinion as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) and Eighth Circuit precedent. (Doc. No. 14, Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Mem.”) 12-13.) Second, she argues that the ALJ erred in giving the state agency providers' opinions substantial weight. (Id. at 20, 22.)

         Third, Plaintiff generally argues the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. (Id. at 22.) Defendant disagrees and requests that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision because the ALJ properly weighed the medical evidence. (Doc. No. 18, Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mem.”) 1.)

         II. Factual Background

         In early 2010, Plaintiff sought mental health treatment while she was pregnant with her son. (Tr. 274.) She learned during her pregnancy that her son would not survive a fetal abnormality. (Tr. 256.) The psychiatrist she saw diagnosed her with adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious mood. (Tr. 275.) Her son was born on April 2, 2010, and died four days later on April 6, 2010.[2] (Tr. 326, 372.) Plaintiff was twenty-eight years old[3] on April 6, 2010, her alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 167.)

         In 2012, Plaintiff was diagnosed with major recurrent depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated bereavement, and persistent disorder of initiating or maintaining sleep. (Tr. 683.) At the hearing, before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that her depression symptoms include body aches, exhaustion, inability to sleep, and a lack of appetite. (Tr. 42.) She also testified that she has anxiety attacks and difficulty focusing. (Tr. 44-45.) She testified that she has crying spells a few times per week. (Tr. 43.) Although she used to be very outgoing, she noted she is now short-tempered and avoids spending time with people. (Tr. 44.)

         Plaintiff also testified that she takes care of her four-year-old and thirteen-year-old daughters. (Tr. 46.) She also attended college; she testified that she was failing, however, the records show she had a grade point average of 2.85 with no indication she is on academic probation or at risk of expulsion. (Tr. 35, 240.) While her daughters are at school, she lies in bed and plays on her phone or sometimes tries to do homework. (Tr. 46.) She testified that her mother-in-law helps her with the laundry and grocery-shopping because she gets tired. (Tr. 47-48.) She also stated she cooks and does dishes sometimes. (Tr. 47-48.)

         Plaintiff has held a variety of jobs since 1996, including work as a cashier, waitress, assembler, and most recently, a team member at a fast food restaurant. (Tr. 231.) Before her alleged onset date, Plaintiff had worked most recently as a crew member at a medical supply assembly company from 2003 to 2008.[4] (Tr. 201.) She also worked part-time at a fast food restaurant after her alleged onset date from October 2011 to March 2012. (Tr. 36, 201.) Plaintiff testified that she left her most recent position at the restaurant for medical reasons. (Tr. 40.) She stated she became too overwhelmed and felt “emotionally drained and tired and frustrated.” (Tr. 40-41.)

         III. The ALJ's Findings and Decision

         In his decision dated July 31, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and denied Plaintiff's application for DIB. (Tr. 21.) The ALJ proceeded through the five-step evaluation process provided in the social security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The steps are as follows:

         (1) whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity”;

         (2) whether the claimant is severely impaired; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and, if not (5) whether the claimant can perform other jobs available in sufficient numbers in the national economy. Id. § 404.1520(a)-(f).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of April 6, 2010, through her date last insured[5] of March 31, 2014. (Tr. 15.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe combination of impairments: “A major depressive disorder; an anxiety disorder with insomnia; posttraumatic stress disorder; complicated bereavement; and a personality disorder.” (Tr. 15.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 15-16.) The ALJ considered listings for mental impairments. (Tr. 16-17.)

         Before reaching step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations.” (Tr. 17.) The ALJ then limited Plaintiff to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks consistent with unskilled work and a work environment that included only occasional decision making. (Tr. 17.) The ALJ stated he made these findings after considering all of the Plaintiff's symptoms and the extent to which the symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence. (Tr. 18.) With regard to opinion evidence, the ALJ gave the opinion of the state agency psychological consultant substantial weight, and gave the opinion of Dr. Benson- Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist-moderate weight. (Tr. 19.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not able to perform past relevant work as a catheter assembler. He based his step-four finding on the vocational expert's testimony that “the demands of the claimant's past work exceed the limitations in the RFC assessment.” (Tr. 20.) Although Plaintiff carried out her past work as a catheter assembler at a “sedentary exertional level, ” the ALJ found that she could not perform this work. (Tr. 20.)

         The ALJ continued to step five and found, pursuant to the vocational expert's testimony, that Plaintiff could make a “successful adjustment to other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy” in light of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC. (Tr. 21.) He found that Plaintiff could perform work as a rack room worker, laundry aide, and stuffer. (Tr. 21.) Thus, the ALJ concluded at step five that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 21.)


         I. ...

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