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Janelle T. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 18, 2019

Janelle T., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Janelle T. seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The case is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment [Doc. Nos. 15, 21]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants in part and denies in part the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, reverses the Commissioner's decision, and remands the matter pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on February 2, 2015, alleging she was unable to work because of a disabling condition as of December 22, 2014. (R. 149.)[2] Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The hearing was convened on January 3, 2017. (R. 31-58.) Plaintiff and vocational expert Cheryl Zilka testified.

         Plaintiff testified that she worked in the Freeborn County auditor/treasurer's department from 2008 through December 22, 2014. (R. 39.) She has not looked for employment since she stopped working. (R. 40.) Plaintiff testified she was not able to work because of mid back pain, low back pain, and headaches. (R. 40.) She experienced dull headaches every day. (R. 40.) Botox injections were administered every three months and were effective beginning about two to three weeks after they were administered until about two to three weeks before the next injection could be scheduled. (R. 40, 44.) Between injections, her headaches were aggravated by activities such as riding in a car, bright lights, and using a computer. (R. 40-41.) Plaintiff also experienced migraines, which made her feel nauseated and required her to lie down in a dark room with a cold washcloth on her forehead for the rest of the day. (R. 49.) Just after she stopped working in 2014, she was experiencing five or six severe migraines a month. (R. 50.)

         Plaintiff testified that she also felt cervical spine pain from her neck to her shoulder daily. (R. 42.) Branch blocks were not effective. (R. 51.) She also noticed cognitive difficulties and memory loss. (R. 41.) In addition to the Botox injections, she took Duloxetine for depression, anxiety, and pain. (R. 44.)

         Plaintiff testified that she needed to rest constantly throughout the day and could fold only half a load of laundry before needing a break. (R. 41.) She could occasionally drive to the pharmacy and shop with her husband. (R. 47-48.)

         After Plaintiff testified, the ALJ asked Ms. Zilka to consider a hypothetical individual of Plaintiff's age and education, with past work as an administrative clerk, and the following limitations: lifting and carrying 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; sitting, standing, and walking limited to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; pushing and pulling limited to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; occasionally operating of a motor vehicle; no exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, or vibration; no more than moderate noise levels; simple, routine, repetitive tasks; making simple, work-related decisions; occasionally interacting with supervisors; and occasionally interacting briefly and superficially with coworkers and the general public. (R. 54-55.) Ms. Zilka testified that such a person could not perform Plaintiff's past work, but could work as a dry cleaner helper, tag stubber, or cleaner. (R. 55-56.)

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 22, 2017. (R. 16-26.) Pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation procedure outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a), the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 22, 2014. (R. 18.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments of chronic neck pain with associated headaches and migraines, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and thoracic spine, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea. (R. 18.) The ALJ found at the third step that no impairment or combination of impairments met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (R. 18.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3]

to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) [sic] (lift/carry, push/pull up to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; sit for about 6 hours, and stand/walk for about 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday) except the claimant is limited to occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, can never work at unprotected heights or around moving mechanical parts, is limited to occasional operation of a motor vehicle, and should never work in extreme cold, extreme heat, or vibration. The claimant can work in moderate noise. She is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with simple work-related decisions. She is limited to occasional, brief and superficial contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the public . . . .

(R. 21.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not able to perform her past relevant work as an administrative clerk. (R. 24.) At step five, however, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could work as a dry cleaner helper, tag stubber, or cleaner. (R. 25.) Therefore, Plaintiff was deemed “not disabled.”

         Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request. (R. 1.) The ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1.) Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review. She contends the ALJ erred by (1) failing to account fully for symptoms associated with her migraines and headaches; (2) not addressing the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Michael Ulrich; (3) not addressing limitations opined by an examining neuropsychologist, Dr. Jackie L. Micklewright; and (4) failing to consider her work history in assessing her credibility. (Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 1 [Doc. No. 16].)

         The Court has reviewed the entire administrative record, giving particular attention to the facts and records cited by the parties. The Court will recount the facts of record only to the extent they are helpful for context or necessary for resolution of the specific issues presented in the parties' motions.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.” Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002) (citing Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court must examine “evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Id. (citing Craig v. Apfel, 212 F.3d 433, 436 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court may not reverse the ALJ's decision simply because substantial evidence would support a different outcome or the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. (citing Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993)). In other words, if it is possible to reach two inconsistent positions from the evidence, and one of those positions is that of the Commissioner, the Court must affirm the decision. Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992).

         A claimant has the burden to prove disability. See Roth v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 279, 282 (8th Cir. 1995). The claimant must establish that he or she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The disability, not just the impairment, must have lasted or be expected to last at least twelve months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).

         III. ...

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