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Tasha W. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 13, 2019

Tasha W., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 17; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 19.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends that Tasha W.'s (hereafter Ms. W) motion for summary judgment be DENIED and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be GRANTED.

         I. Procedural History and ALJ Decision

         On June 9, 2014, Ms. W. applied for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2012 due to diabetes mellitus, depression, schizophrenia, foot pain due to diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure. (R. 10, 252.) Her claim was originally denied on October 3, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on March 20, 2015. (R. 10.) Ms. W. filed a written request for a hearing on April 21, 2015, and a hearing was held on August 5, 2016 before Administrative Law Judge Roger W. Thomas. (Id.) ALJ Thomas issued an unfavorable decision on September 19, 2016. (R. 24.) Ms. W. then requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request (R. 6), making the ALJ's decision the final decision ripe for judicial review. E.g., Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).

         ALJ Thomas performed the five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Ms. W. was disabled. At Step 1, he found that Ms. W. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. (R. 12.) Although Ms. W. does work part time, ALJ Thomas determined that this work did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. (Id.)

         At Step 2, ALJ Thomas found that Ms. W. had severe impairments caused by schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder and cognitive limitations. (Id.) He acknowledged that Ms. W. had been diagnosed with diabetes mellitus and had a history of deep vein thrombosis, but found both conditions to be non-severe. (Id.) ALJ Thomas cited several factors for determining Ms. W.'s physical impairments to be non-severe. First, he noted that Ms. W.'s diabetes mellitus was uncontrolled at times due to medication noncompliance, but that her symptoms improved when her medication compliance did. (Id.) ALJ Thomas also found that Ms. W.'s history of deep vein thrombosis was non-severe her condition was not continuing in nature. (Id.). He determined that the state agency medical consultant's conclusions that both conditions were non-severe was consistent with the overall evidence in the record, and therefore gave them great weight. (Id.)

         At Step 3, ALJ Thomas determined that none of Ms. W.'s severe impairments, nor the combination of her various impairments, met or equaled the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404 Subpart P, Appx. 1. (R. 13.) He assessed Ms. W.'s severe mental impairments and considered whether the “paragraph B” criteria in listings 12.03, 12.04, and 12.05 (paragraph D in listing 12.05) were satisfied. To satisfy these criteria, the mental impairments must result in at least two of the following: marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulty maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. 20 C.F.R. § 404(P) Appx. 1. ALJ Thomas found that Ms. W. suffered from only mild restrictions in activities of daily living, and moderate restrictions in social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace, and that she had suffered no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (R. 13-14.) ALJ Thomas also considered whether Ms. W. met other criteria in listing 12.05, but ultimately concluded that she did not. (R. 15-16.)

         At Step 4, ALJ Thomas found that Ms. W. had the residual functional capacity to perform work at all exertional levels, but that she required certain non-exertional limitations. Specifically, he limited Ms. W. to work with only very basic instructions, routine work with changes to instructions no more than once a week, with changes to be made gradually. (R. 16.) He further limited her to simple, unskilled tasks with limited stress, and no high production goals or fast-paced assembly line work. (Id.) Finally, he found Ms. W. could have only brief and superficial contact with others. (Id.)

         At Step 5, ALJ Thomas determined that Ms. W. was capable of performing work according to her RFC, and that sufficient suitable jobs exist in the national economy. (R. 23.) He cited the vocational expert's testimony, who suggested that Ms. W. could perform the job of housekeeper or cleaner II. (Id.) Accordingly, he determined that Ms. W. was not disabled.

         II. Analysis

         When reviewing a “not disabled” determination, the Court does not seek to impose its own opinion on the record. Instead, the Court's review is limited to whether the decision is supported by “substantial evidence on the record as a whole, ” and is free from legal error. Gann v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 947, 950 (8th Cir. 2017); Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015); see also 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). When reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the Court must consider both evidence supporting the decision and evidence in the record that “fairly detracts from that decision.” Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005). However, the Court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision simply because substantial evidence in the record could support a different conclusion. Gann, 864 F.3d at 950; Reed, 399 F.3d at 920. Rather, reversal is only warranted when the Commissioner's decision is not reasonable; i.e., it is outside “the available zone of choice.” See Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Bradley v. Astrue, 528 F.3d 1113, 1115 (8th Cir. 2008).

         A. Ms. W.'s Diabetes Mellitus

         Ms. W. argues that ALJ Thomas erred when he determined that her diabetes mellitus was non-severe.[1] She argues that he overlooked the ongoing nature of her struggle to manage her diabetes and the frequency with which it was poorly controlled. Ms. W. also emphasized the role that her intellectual disability played in making it difficult to control her condition through either diet or medication.

         The Court disagrees with Ms. W. for several reasons. And finds that ALJ Thomas's conclusion on this point is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. First, the record demonstrates that Ms. W.'s diabetes mellitus is largely controlled with medication. When Ms. W. experienced an increase in symptoms, it was due to treatment noncompliance. (See, e.g., R. 1054-55, 1061-62 (diabetes mellitus poorly controlled when regularly missing medication and following inconsistent diet).) However, Ms. W.'s symptoms improve greatly when she follows treatment consistently. (See, e.g., R. 1083-84.) Indeed, ALJ Thomas noted that Ms. W.'s A1c level was improving with treatment. (R. 12.) When a condition can be effectively treated, it is not severe. Phillips v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 623, 631 (8th Cir. 2013); cf. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1530(b) (failure to follow prescribed treatment will result in a finding of not disabled). To the extent that Ms. W. argues that her noncompliance is ...

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