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Kriss S. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 16, 2019

Kriss S., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Kriss S. seeks review of the denial by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) of her application for supplemental social security income (“SSI”) benefits. See (Compl. [Doc. No. 1 at 1].) The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. No. 11]; (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. No. 13].) For the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment be denied, and that the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI on November 12, 2014. See, e.g., (Admin. R. [Doc. No. 10 at 76, 166].) Plaintiff asserted an alleged onset date (“AOD”) of February 15, 2010, claiming disability as a result of depression and social anxiety disorder. See, e.g., (id. at 64, 76). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id. at 15, 90-93, 98-100.) Following a hearing, an administrative law judge (the “ALJ”) denied benefits to Plaintiff. (Id. at 27.) On December 12, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 1.) The decision by the Appeals Council to deny review rendered the ALJ's decision final. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481; Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         On February 23, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled after conducting a five-step analysis prescribed by 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(g). (Id. at 15-27.)

         At step one, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity as of her AOD. (Id. at 17.) At step two, the ALJ considered the following to be severe impairments under the regulations: “generalized anxiety disorder; social anxiety disorder; and major depressive disorder.” (Id. at 17-18.) At step three, the ALJ considered Listing 12.04 and Listing 12.06 and determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the Listings. See (id. at 18-20.)

         At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has the RFC to work at all exertional levels, “with the following nonexertional limitations: simple, routine and repetitive tasks but not at a production rate pace such as that found in assembly-line work; and able to respond appropriately to supervisors and coworkers occasionally but not able to respond appropriately to the public.” (Id. at 20.) The ALJ stated that “[t]he objective medical evidence, observations by providers, medication, and course of medical treatment regarding the claimant's mental impairments are consistent with the above residual functional capacity assessed, and inconsistent with the degree of isolating social anxiety, depression and panic attacks . . . alleged by the claimant.” (Id. at 21.) With respect to activities of daily living, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff lives alone and cares for her small dog and drives to her mother's house daily to help her mother with tasks around her mother's house. (Id. at 24.) The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff “is capable of arranging and scheduling her medical appointments, and she typically attends these appointments independently. She also participates and makes decisions regarding her medical treatment/therapy.” (Id.) The ALJ also discussed occasional social interaction with one friend in further support of the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff's activities of daily living did not support her claims regarding the limiting effects of her isolating social anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. (Id.)

         Regarding opinion evidence, the ALJ gave the opinion of the state psychologists substantial weight because the opinions were

consistent with the objective medical records, including the minimal to moderate clinical findings and signs of mental impairments, observations by providers, mental status examinations, course of treatment with chronic refusal to adjust medications or to receive additional mental health treatment and care, no intensive or aggressive mental health treatment/therapy, her function report, and her daily activities.

(Id. at 25.) The ALJ also addressed the opinion of Patricia Mayer, MD, Plaintiff's treating physician, who opined that Plaintiff exhibited “significant [anxiety] symptoms, which limited her ability to work outside the home.” (Id.) The ALJ gave this opinion little weight because “the claimant has repeatedly refused additional mental health treatment and her refusals were not well explained or well founded. Dr. Mayer continued medication management without significant changes or adjustments, and the claimant's mental status examinations remained without significant abnormalities . . . .” (Id.) The ALJ also observed that “the claimant's daily activities as noted above are inconsistent with disabling anxiety symptoms as she presented to Dr. Mayer regularly for appointments and drove to her mother's house daily to help out.” (Id.) In addition, Dr. Mayer no longer followed the Plaintiff after providing this opinion. As a result, the ALJ considered the opinion to be “a snapshot in time rather than an ongoing, current depiction of the claimant's overall mental functioning.” (Id.)

         At step five, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could work in jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including: industrial cleaner; dishwasher, kitchen helper; and routing clerk. (Id. at 26-27.) Thus, the ALJ held that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 27.)

         Plaintiff asserts errors related to the ALJ's determination at step four. See generally (Pl.'s Mem. of Law in Supp of Mot. for Summ. J., “Pl.'s Mem. in Supp.” [Doc. No. 12].) In particular, the Plaintiff argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's conclusion that she has only moderate limitations in her social functioning, and that the ALJ improperly discredited the Plaintiff's alleged impairments on the basis of Plaintiff's failure to follow prescribed treatments. (Id. at 9-11.)

         C. Factual Background[1]

         1. Plaintiff's Background and Testimony

         Plaintiff has a high school education. She has not worked consistently since around 1999, and she stopped working altogether around 2011. See, e.g., (Admin. R. at 17, 26, 161, 171, 177.)

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that she visits with her mother “[e]very day to bring her her mail and paper, ” that she helps with the cleaning and cooking, and gets along “wonderful[ly]” with her. (Id. at 41.) Plaintiff also mentioned that she would never consider doing these types of activities for anyone else because she is “comfortable with [her] mother.” (Id. at 57.) Plaintiff stated that she typically is in bed fourteen to sixteen hours per day, and that her arrival time at her mother's home is irregular. See (id. at 55.) Plaintiff noted that her mother does not seem to care when she arrives because “[s]he knows that I can get there when I can get there.” (Id. at 55.)

         She also testified that she has two siblings nearby but that she does not see them. ( 41.) Plaintiff stated that besides her friend and her mother, there is no one else that she sees on a regular basis. (Id. at 54.) Plaintiff testified that her friend comes to Plaintiff's house “[m]aybe once a week.” (Id. at 54.) Plaintiff also mentioned that she does not leave the house to mow her lawn; her daughter does that for her. (Id.)

         Plaintiff further testified that she can drive, but that her friend shops for Plaintiff's groceries. (Id. at 41.) Plaintiff does shop with her mother when her mother goes to the grocery store, and she is able to retrieve her mother's prescriptions from the pharmacy about five times per month. (Id. at 42.) Plaintiff testified that she does not shop for clothes, does not leave the house to visit her friend, but will occasionally leave the house during the summer to go to a campground. (Id. at 42-43.)

         Plaintiff testified that the last time she went to therapy was 2010, and that it did not help. (Id. at 47.) Plaintiff stated that she gets panic attacks “[a]ll the time, ” even at home. (Id. at 57.) She testified that she currently takes Effexor for her depression, that she had been on it starting in about 1994, and that her dosage had gone up a few times over the past ten years. (Id. at 49.) With respect to her anxiety, Plaintiff stated that she takes a number of medications for various conditions and was not certain which medicines treated which conditions, but that she believed she took BuSpar and propranolol for her anxiety. See (id. at 50-52.) She takes BuSpar twice a day. See (id. at 51.) She takes propranolol only when she leaves the house because her doctors instructed her to take it only in emergencies and, she testified, she does not need it at home. See (id. at 52.) One of the reasons she gave for her limited usage of propranolol is because “[i]t calms my body down quite a lot, sometimes too much. That's why I don't take it because it feels like I haven't taken my depression medicine, I'm so low.” (Id.) When asked whether she had taken her propranolol the day of the hearing, she said that she had not “because I didn't get out of bed until I was almost picked up [for the hearing].” (Id.)

         In response to questions about why she had not followed recommendations from her treating physicians to alter ...

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