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Clark v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

July 24, 2018

Rebecca Clark, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy Berryhill, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Karl Osterhout and Edward Olson, for Plaintiff.

          Pamela Marentette, Assistant United States Attorney, for Defendant.

          ORDER

          FRANKLIN L. NOEL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Rebecca Ann Clark seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner (“Commissioner”) of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), who denied her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. This court has jurisdiction over the claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. See ECF Nos. 14 and 16. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED, and the case is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This extended SSA litigation involves Clark's application for SSA benefits that was denied on multiple occasions and levels by the SSA, but was twice remanded by the SSA Appeals Council. At the core of this dispute, is the disabling effect recurring migraine headache have on Clark's ability to secure and maintain competitive employment and the paucity of medical records supporting Clark's allegations regarding the limiting effects, severity, and frequency of her migraine headaches.

         On August 8, 2011, Clark applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging an initial disability onset date of December 24, 2007. Administrative Record [hereinafter “AR”] 193, 418 ECF No. 13. The SSA denied Clark's application initially and upon reconsideration. AR 266, 276. On March 15, 2013, an initial administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Michael Quayle. AR 99-131. On April 11, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying Clark's DIB application. AR 224. Specifically, the ALJ found that Clark, based on her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity could transition to other work in the national economy. AR 215. On July 23, 2014, the SSA Appeals Council remanded the matter back to the ALJ, directing the ALJ to “[g]ive further consideration to Clark's maximum residual functional capacity and provide rational with specific reference to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations” and “evaluate the nontreating source opinion . . . and nonexamning source opinions . . . .” AR 225. The ALJ was also directed to “if warranted by the expanded record, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocation expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant's occupational base.” Id.

         On November 13, 2014, a second administrative hearing was held before ALJ Quayle. AR 231. On December 4, 2014, the ALJ again denied Clark's DIB application. AR 252. Specifically, the ALJ again found that Clark, based on her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity could transition to other work in the national economy. AR 253. On April 23, 2015, the SSA Appeals Council again remanded the matter back to the ALJ, directing the ALJ to: (1) “[g]ive further consideration to the claimant's maximum residual functional capacity during the entire period at issue and provide rational with specific reference to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations[;]” (2) “evaluate the treating and nontreating source opinions[;]” and (3) “explain the weight given to such opinions.” AR 264.

         On November 25, 2015, a third administrative hearing was held, this time before ALJ Micah Pharris. AR 132-92. On December 9, 2015, the ALJ denied Clark's DIB application. AR 7-9. For a third time, the ALJ concluded that Clark, based on her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity could transition to other work in the national economy. AR 46. On March 24, 2017, the SSA Appeals Council denied review, finalizing the ALJ's decision for purposes of judicial review. AR 1-6; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On May 23, 2017, Clark commenced this action, seeking an award of benefits, or alternatively, remand for further proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). See ECF No. 1.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Background

         Clark was thirty-one years old at her amended alleged disability onset date, which is defined as a younger claimant under SSA regulations. AR 142-43; see also 418; § 404.1563(c). Clark claims that the following medical conditions impair her ability to secure and maintain competitive employment: chronic migraine headaches, severe right shoulder/neck pain, arthritis, carpal tunnel, and depression. AR 478. Clark has a high school education and her past relevant work includes employment as a cashier, insulator, expediter, and personal care attendant. AR 639. This past relevant work is classified as unskilled and semiskilled. Id.

         B. Hearing Testimony

         Clark testified at the November 25, 2015, administrative hearing on her own behalf. AR 132-92. Clark was represented by her attorney, Greg Nelson. Id. Nelson made no objection to the admission of the exhibits into evidence, nor did he move for the admission of evidence. AR 135- 36.

         Clark testified that she provided care for her disabled cousin for brief and sporadic periods between 2009 and 2013. AR 149. Clark testified that she worked at McDonald's as a cashier in 2009 and 2010, but left the job because she suffered severe migraines. AR 150. She testified that fluorescent lights trigger her migraines. AR 155. Clark testified that the she had suffered from migraines for many years, but they started to become more intense and frequent in 2011, when she started getting them two to three times per week. AR 157-58. She stated that the migraines usually lasted eight to ten hours, during which Clark would lay in bed for relief, often without eating, and in total darkness. AR 159.

         Clark testified that she has three young children, all of which live with her and her husband. AR 148. Clark stated that her migraines disrupted her family life because the condition required her children to talk very little and to keep household noise to a minimum. Id. Clark testified that her medication, primarily Percocet and Cyclobenzaprine, occasionally eased her pain symptoms, but often failed to provide any relief and caused significant side effects. AR 159-60. For example, Clark testified that the medications have caused her to gain approximately seventy pounds because they make her drowsy, lethargic, and inactive. AR 168. Clark testified that she receives regular treatment for her migraines, from her neurologist, Joseph Morley, M.D. AR 161. Clark testified that Morley changes her medication to explore different pain treatments. AR 162.

         A neutral medical expert, Joseph Horozaniecki, M.D., also testified at the hearing. AR 169. Horozaniecki testified that he reviewed Clark's medical record and observed that her headache disorder was variously diagnosed as migraine, trauma, and cervicogenic. AR 170. Horozaniecki testified that the frequency of Clark's headache impairment is mentioned only in Morley's SSA medical source statements, but not in any of Clark's provider treatment notes. AR 172. He opined that, typically, in a case allegedly dealing with debilitating migraine headaches, he would expect to observe the frequency of the headaches recorded in the treatment notes; for example, medication and treatments addressing frequency as well as pain. Id. Horozaniecki testified that absent Morley's SSA medical source statements, a listing level impairment is not demonstrated by the medical evidence of record. AR 173.

         Horozaniecki further testified that fluorescent lights could be a trigger Clark's migraines, but that a specific source was not noted outside Morley's SSA medical source statements. AR 177. Horozaniecki testified that the frequency of the migraines would likely need to be a point of inquiry in order to properly administer medications and treatments. AR 178. Horozaniecki testified that, in his experience, it is unlikely that a patient would not report the frequency of their severe migraines ...


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