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Goetz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 30, 2018

MICHELLE LEE GOETZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          DAVID T. SCHULTZ UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Michelle Lee Goetz (“Goetz”) appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment [Docket Nos. 15, 18]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends Goetz's Motion for Summary Judgment be denied and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 25, 2013, Goetz filed an application for disability insurance benefits stemming from numerous ongoing health issues. Tr. 12, 17.[1] She claims a disability onset date of September 9, 2009, and a date last insured of March 31, 2015. Tr. 89-90. Thus, Goetz must establish she became disabled on or before March 31, 2015. Martonik v. Heckler, 773 F.2d 236, 238 (8th Cir. 1985).

         Goetz's application was denied initially on January 3, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on June 24, 2014. Tr. 95-96, 109-10. Goetz appealed her denial to the ALJ, who upheld the denial of benefits, concluding that, while Goetz was unable to perform past relevant work, she was able to perform other work. Tr. 25-26. Goetz then appealed to the Appeals Council, which appeal was denied, making the ALJ's November 5, 2015 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; Tr. 1-3.

         On December 21, 2016, Goetz timely filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner. Compl., Docket No. 1. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment [Docket Nos. 15, 18] pursuant to District of Minnesota Local Rule 7.2(c).

         Goetz argues the ALJ committed reversible error in crafting a Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (“RFC”) not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Pl. Mem. p. 1, Docket No. 16. In sum, she argues the ALJ placed too much weight on opinions of non-examining sources while placing little or no weight on the opinions of examining and/or treating sources. Id. at pp. 7-14. She also alleges the ALJ improperly assessed her credibility. Id. at pp. 14-16. The Commissioner argues the ALJ assigned proper weight to the medical opinion evidence and correctly assessed Goetz's credibility, and thus the denial of benefits was supported by substantial evidence in the record. Def. Mem. p. 1, Docket No. 19. In essence, the dispute hinges on whether the ALJ considered and properly weighed the medical evidence and the claimant's testimony in determining Goetz's RFC.

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         I. ALJ DECISION

         The ALJ determined Goetz was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and denied her application for disability insurance benefits. Tr. 24-26. The ALJ proceeded through the five-step evaluation process provided for in social security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Tr. 14-25. At step one, the ALJ found Goetz was not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity because, while she had been briefly paid to assist an elderly neighbor with chores and errands, that assistance did not constitute substantial gainful activity. Tr. 14. At step two, the ALJ determined Goetz had the severe impairments of relapsing polychondritis (cartilage inflammation and deterioration); history of bilateral knee replacement; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/asthma, with chronic tobacco abuse; history of aortic aneurysm; history of scleritis (eye inflammation); chronic pain syndrome; peripheral arterial/vascular disease with aortoiliac stenting bilaterally; right renal artery stenosis with renal artery stenting; anemia; and osteoporosis. Tr. 14-15. At step three, the ALJ determined these impairments neither met nor medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 or 416.926. Tr. 15-24. Accordingly, the ALJ determined Goetz's RFC as:

… through the date last insured, [Goetz] had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), which involves lifting and carrying 10 lbs. occasionally and less than 10 lbs. frequently, sitting for 6 hours out of an 8-hour day, and standing and/or walking for 2 hours out of an 8-hour day. The claimant would be able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs, occasionally be able to balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, and would not be able to climb ladders or scaffolds. There would be no exposure in the workplace to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts or concentrated amounts of dust, odors, fumes and pulmonary irritants, with no work involving exposure to extreme cold or heat, or vibration.

Tr. 16.

         At step four, the ALJ determined Goetz was unable to perform past relevant work as a training specialist because the vocational expert testified Goetz's RFC precluded her from doing so. Tr. 24. At Step Five, the ALJ found that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Goetz could have performed, such as a document preparer, semi-conductor bonder, and a touch up screener for printed circuit board. Tr. 24-25. The ALJ thus concluded that Goetz, given her relative youth (43 years old) and her education, was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id.

         CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Commissioner's denial of disability benefits is subject to judicial review. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). This Court has authority to “enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” Id. at § 405(g).

         Disability under the Social Security Act means the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. at ยง 423(d)(1)(A). Under the regulations, disability means that the impairment(s) is/are so severe that the claimant is not only unable to engage in her previous work, ...


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