United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge
plaintiff, Mary G (hereafter “Ms. G”), brings
this action challenging the denial of her application for
Social Security disability benefits by the Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). This
matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions
for summary judgment. Pl.'s Mot., ECF No. 13; Def.'s
Mot., ECF No. 17. For the reasons that follow, the Ms.
G's motion is denied, the Commissioner's motion is
granted, and this matter is dismissed.
the years, Ms. G has struggled with chronic diffuse pain from
fibromyalgia; pain in her arms, neck, and hands; trigger
thumb; and breast cancer, which is now in remission. She was
diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2014. She received
chemotherapy for several months and had a right breast
lumpectomy in February 2015. She then underwent radiation
treatment from April 2015 through May 2015. After her cancer
treatment concluded, she continued to struggle with
complaints of pain and ongoing issues with her hands. Ms. G
has also occasionally experienced anxiety and depression.
Though she has a history of excessive alcohol use, she
stopped drinking heavily when she was diagnosed with cancer.
applied for disability benefits from the SSA and alleged that
she became unable to work beginning on June 30, 2014. The SSA
denied her application initially and on reconsideration, and
Ms. G requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). At an April 7, 2016 hearing, the ALJ
assigned to her case, Roger Thomas, heard testimony from Ms.
G and a vocational expert, Robert Bryzinski. Following the
hearing, ALJ Thomas issued a written decision denying Ms.
found that Ms. G has several severe impairments, including:
“fibromyalgia; cervical degenerative disc disease;
carpal tunnel syndrome; hypothyroidism; history of right
breast cancer status post chemotherapy, radiation, and
lumpectomy currently in remission; and history of right
trigger thumb release.” Admin. R. (“R”) at
12, ECF No. 16. The ALJ found that Ms. G's anxiety and
depression would not cause more than a minimal limitation in
her ability to perform basic mental work activities, noting
that they would only result in mild limitations in social
functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, and
pace. R. 12-14.
Thomas also determined Ms. G's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”), R. 14-19, which is the most a
claimant can do despite his or her physical and mental
limitations, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ found
that Ms. G can still perform “light work,
” but is precluded from climbing ladders,
ropes, and scaffolds. She can only occasionally bend, stoop,
kneel, crouch, crawl, and engage in overhead tasks, and she
can frequently climb ramps and stairs. She must avoid
exposure to extreme temperatures, cannot work in an
environment that is very wet, subject to vibrations, or
presents hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous
unprotected machines. Based on these restrictions, ALJ Thomas
found that Ms. G could return to her past relevant work as a
cost accountant, and therefore, he determined that she is not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. R.
asked the Social Security Appeals Council to review the
ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied her
request. Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner, subject to judicial review. She
brings this action to appeal the Commissioner's
determination that she is not disabled.
reviewing the Commissioner's denial of Ms. G's
application for benefits the Court determines whether the
decision is supported by “substantial evidence on the
record as a whole” or results from an error of law.
Gann v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 947, 950 (8th Cir.
2017); Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir.
2015); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence
is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but is such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind would find adequate to
support the Commissioner's conclusion.”
Blackburn v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 853, 858 (8th Cir.
2014) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). The
Court considers not only the evidence supporting the
Commissioner's decision, but also the evidence in the
record that “fairly detracts from that decision.”
Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005).
However, the Court will not reverse the Commissioner's
decision merely because substantial evidence might also
support a different conclusion. Gann, 864 F.3d at
950; Reed, 399 F.3d at 920. The Court should reverse
the Commissioner's decision only where it falls outside
“the available zone of choice, ” meaning that the
Commissioner's decision is not among the reasonable
conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence in the
record. See Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556
(8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Bradley v. Astrue, 528 F.3d
1113, 1115 (8th Cir. 2008).
raises four main challenges to the Commissioner's
decision. First, she argues that ALJ Thomas should have
included limitations in the RFC that would account for her
neck, arm, and hand impairments, including cervical disc
disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, and right trigger thumb.
Second, she argues that the ALJ erred in categorizing her
past relevant work. Third, she contends that the ALJ should
have included limitations in the RFC that correspond to her
mild limitations in social functioning and maintaining
concentration, persistence, and pace. And fourth, she argues
that even though ALJ Thomas acknowledged Ms. G's
impairments were more severe while she was receiving
treatment for breast cancer, he failed to consider whether
she was disabled for a closed period of benefits. For the
reasons that follow, the Court concludes that the ALJ's
decision must be affirmed.
Neck, Arm, and Hand Limitations
noted above, Ms. G asserts that ALJ Thomas erred when he
failed to adopt specific limitations in the RFC that reflect
a lack of ability to use her hands. She claims that because
the ALJ found her cervical disc disease, carpal tunnel
syndrome, and right trigger thumb were severe impairments, he
was required to include limitations restricting the use of
her hands and arms at work. For several reasons, the Court