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Marry G. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 12, 2019

Mary G., Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy Berryhill, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge

         The 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.

         I. Background

         Over 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.

         Ms. G 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. G's claim.

         The ALJ 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.

         ALJ 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, ”[1] 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. 19-20.

         Ms. G 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.

         II. Legal Standard

         In 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).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. G 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.

         A. Neck, Arm, and Hand Limitations

          As 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 ...


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