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Kuikka v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 15, 2018

Todd Mark Kuikka, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Karl E. Osterhout, Osterhout Disability Law LLC, and Edward C. Olson, Attorney at Law, for Plaintiff Todd Mark Kuikka

          Bahram Samie and Ann M. Bildtsen, United States Attorney for Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Todd Mark Kuikka seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for social security disability insurance benefits (DIB). The matter is now before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment [Doc. Nos. 16, 19]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny Kuikka's motion for summary judgment and grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Procedural Background

         Kuikka applied for DIB benefits on April 30, 2015, alleging a disability which began on November 5, 2011. (R. 25.) His applications were denied initially on July 29, 2015, and were again denied after reconsideration on November 25, 2015. (Id.) Kuikka then requested a hearing to review the denial of his benefit claims. (Id..) An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) convened a hearing on May 13, 2016, at which vocational expert Robert Brezinski testified. (Id.) Assessing Kuikka's claims under the five-step sequential evaluation procedure outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ issued a written decision on June 22, 2016, in which he determined that Kuikka was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. 20-31.)

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Kuikka had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of November 5, 2011. (R. 22.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Kuikka had severe impairments from mild degenerative joint disease in the AC joint of his right shoulder, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), antisocial and narcissistic personality disorder, and history of alcohol abuse in remission. (Id.) The ALJ found at the third step, however, that no impairment or combination of impairments met or equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (R. 23-24.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Kuikka retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work which does not involve work at unprotected heights or near hazards and does not require more than occasional overhead work on the right. (R. 25.) The ALJ further specified that Kuikka has the RFC to do routine, repetitive simple work, not requiring any public contact or more than brief and superficial contacts with coworkers and supervisors. (R. 25.) Additionally, the work must be low stress, not requiring more than routine changes in the work process or setting. (Id.) Based on his assessment of Kuikka's limitations, the ALJ then concluded that Kuikka could not perform either of his past jobs as an explosive ordinance disposal worker or a photofinishing worker. (R. 29.) The ALJ then proceeded to step five and concluded that Kuikka could make a successful adjustment to work as a warehouse worker, polishing machine operator, or printed circuit board assembler. (R. 30.) Therefore, because Kuikka was able to work in certain positions available in the American economy, the ALJ deemed Kuikka not disabled. (R. 31.) The Appeals Council denied Kuikka's request for review, which made the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 6.)

         Kuikka then initiated this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Kuikka asserts the medical opinions of Dr. Sandra Crossett, Ms. Jean Bjerke, and Mr. Gary Simpson establish that his PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and depression cause him to suffer marked to extreme impairments, yet the RFC vastly understates the specific limitations associated with his mental health issues. (Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 13 [Doc. No. 17].) Further, Kuikka argues the ALJ erred in discounting the medical source opinions because she did not provide good reasons for doing so. (Id. at 15.) In particular, Kuikka faults the ALJ for failing to acknowledge that the opinions of Dr. Crossett, as an examining source, and Ms. Bjerke and Mr. Simpson, as treating sources, are entitled to greater weight. (Id. at 17-19.) Additionally, Kuikka asserts the ALJ gave legally deficient and factually inaccurate rationales for rejecting the medical source opinions. (Id. at 19-27.) In light of the improperly discounted medical source opinions, Kuikka asserts the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because it ignores severe mental impairments suffered by Kuikka which prevent him from performing basic work activities.

         II. Medical Background

         The Court has reviewed the entire administrative record, giving particular attention to the facts and records cited by the parties. The Court will recount the facts of record only to the extent they are helpful for context or necessary for resolution of the specific issues presented in the parties' motions.

         Kuikka is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who was medically discharged after having served fourteen years in various roles, including as an explosive ordinance disposal team leader and forensic analyst. (R. 4428.) Kuikka served multiple tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones around the world. (R. 4428.) The Veterans Benefits Administration has assessed Kuikka as 80% disabled as a result of injuries stemming from his service. (Id.)

         Since his discharge, Kuikka has suffered from an inability to sleep due to nightmares. His nightmares have their origins in two specific incidents he experienced in combat, one involving the bombing of an elementary school and the other involving the death of a child who approached Kuikka's convoy in a combat zone. (R. 4428-29.) Kuikka and his wife explained during a diagnostic assessment that after three nights without sleep, he would spiral out of control by “‘living in his head' and not communicating, isolating himself and [experiencing] paranoia about what is going on around him.” (R. 4428.) When he was unable to obtain relief from flashbacks and nightmares, Kuikka would find solace in alcohol and drink to excess so that he “would not remember the nightmares.” (R. 4429.) In the Summer of 2014, Kuikka experienced unrelenting flashbacks and nightmares triggered by Fourth of July fireworks and the re-roofing of a neighbor's house. (Id.) Kuikka's reliance on alcohol during this period became particularly pronounced. (Id.) He was in and out of the St. Cloud Veterans Hospital psychiatric ward, and in August 2014, psychiatrist Dr. Brown recommended he be civilly committed. (Id.) Kuikka was not ultimately committed, but he did attend the Stadter Center in North Dakota for three and a half weeks, where his medications were altered to allow him to sleep. (Id.)

         With the help of new medication, Kuikka reported being able to “turn down the volume” of his nightmares so he could “endure them without losing [his] mind.” (R. 4429.) He then attended Fergus Falls Community Action Recovery Enterprises for the first two months of 2015, after which he participated in an after care plan. (Id.) Each week, the Tri County Crisis Response team visited him twice in his home, with social worker Gary Simpson as team lead. (Id.) He also underwent individual and marriage counseling at Lutheran Social Services with social worker Jean Bjerke. (Id.) These resources helped Kuikka adopt a strict household routine and structure, and he has been able to stay sober and respond to his nightmares, irritability and outbursts in a healthier way. (Id.)

         III. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 841 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971)), meaning that less than a preponderance of the evidence is needed to meet the standard. Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002). The Court must examine “evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Id. (citing Craig v. Apfel, 212 F.3d 433, 436 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court may not reverse the ALJ's decision simply because substantial evidence would support a different outcome or the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. (citing Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993)). In other words, if it is possible to reach two inconsistent positions from the evidence, and one of those positions is that of the Commissioner, the Court must affirm the decision. Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992).

         A claimant has the burden to prove disability. See Roth v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 279, 282 (8th Cir. 1995). To meet the definition of disability for DIB purposes, the claimant must establish that she is unable “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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The same standard applies to SSI claims. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The disability, not just the impairment, must have lasted or be expected to last for at least twelve months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's denial of a disability claim, the Court assesses whether the disability determination is supported by substantial evidence at each step of the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At the first step, the Commissioner determines if the claimant is working, i.e. “engaging in substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled and the analysis ends there. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step two, the Commissioner assesses whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is “severe, ” meaning it limits his ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant's impairment or set of impairments are not severe, the claimant is not disabled. Id. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment qualifies as a “listed impairment.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). A listed impairment is one that per se qualifies a claimant for disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the claimant's impairment is not listed, however, the ALJ then proceeds to assess the claimant's RFC based on “all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At step four, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC and determines if the claimant is able to meet the demands of the job he or she held prior to the outset of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant is capable of working in his former job, the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         Lastly, at step five, the Commissioner assesses whether the claimant is able to adjust to any other work, taking into account his RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is able to do other work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Unlike the previous steps where the claimant has the burden of proof, at this last step the Commissioner has the burden of proving the claimant is not disabled due to the availability of other work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(b)(3). In particular, the ALJ must show that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can do the work given his RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.

         IV. Discussion

         Kuikka argues the ALJ erred in assessing his RFC which resulted in the denial of his disability claim. A residual functional capacity assessment is an administrative determination regarding the extent to which a claimant is capable of performing work-related activities given the claimant's impairments. Page v. Astrue,484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007). The Commissioner determines the claimant's RFC by conducting “a function-by-function assessment based upon all of the relevant evidence of an individual's ability to do work-related activities, ” SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. ...

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