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Michelle P. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 22, 2019

Michelle P., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Michelle P. seeks review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (the “Commissioner”) denial of her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[1] See (Compl. [Doc. No. 1 at 1].[2]) The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Mot., “Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J.” [Doc. No. 15]; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. No. 20].) For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed for DIB on February 22, 2014. (R. 53.) Plaintiff alleged she was unable to work as a result of rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, Raynaud's Disease, “auto-immune diseases, ” tachycardia, and polycystic ovary syndrome, and asserted an alleged onset date (“AOD”) of July 26, 2009.[3] See, e.g., (R. 10, 53-54, 173, 199.) Plaintiff's “date last insured” for DIB purposes was December 31, 2014.[4] See (R. 10, 12, 173). 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 August 2, 2016. (R. 29-51.) Plaintiff and vocational expert Jesse Ogren testified.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 20, 2016. (R. 7-22.) 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 at least her AOD of July 26, 2009. (R. 12.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments of rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, patellofemoral syndrome, rotator cuff tendinopathy, tachycardia, and connective tissue disorder with Raynaud's symptoms. (Id.) 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. 14.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[5]

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, occasional stopping, kneeling, and crouching, no crawling, no tasks that would specifically require the act of balancing for completion, no extremes of heat and cold, and no concentrated exposure to fumes, dusts, odors, gases, and poor ventilation, and routine repetitive types of tasks and instructions with no strict production rate pace such as an assembly line type work.

(R. 15.) The ALJ also found at step four that Plaintiff was not able to perform her past relevant work as a cable company worker, scheduler, worker detention deputy, audio/video teacher's aide, receptionist, or an administrative assistant. (R. 20.)

         At step five, however, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff could work in jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including: fold machine feeder, bagger, and stuffer. (R. 21.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 22.)

         Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request. (R. 1- 3.) The ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id.); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by (1) failing to afford proper weight to the opinion of Dr. McLeod, one of her treating physicians; (2) discrediting Plaintiff's subjective complaints; and (3) determining that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform “light” work. See generally (Mem. of Law in Supporting Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., “Pl.'s Mem. in Supp.” [Doc. No. 14 at 15-26].)

         B. Factual Background [6]

         1. Plaintiff's Background and Testimony

          As of her date last insured, Plaintiff was 34 years old, and therefore a “younger person.” See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c); see also (R. 53.) Plaintiff has a high school education and completed vocational training in a “Firefighter/EMT Training program.” (R. 200.) She worked consistently until July 2009, but has not worked since. See, e.g., (R. 12, 149, 199.)

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that she had stopped working as a corrections officer in July 2009 because of health-related issues. See (R. 31.) Specifically, she said she suffered from chronic migraines and an autoimmune disorder that affected her joints. (Id.) She also stated that stairs were particularly problematic as were the long periods of being on her feet and the duration of her twelve-hour shifts. (Id.) Plaintiff testified that she is able to stand for “[n]o more than an hour probably.” (R 40.) Furthermore, if she is required to sit for long periods, her hips and knees start to ache. (Id.) Her employer allowed her to go on a year of unpaid leave as she attempted to address her medical issues, but things did not improve, and Plaintiff testified that she believes her condition has worsened with the passage of time. See (R. 32.) Plaintiff also testified that as her condition worsened, she was no longer able to volunteer as a firefighter. (R. 34.)

         When asked about light sensitivity associated with her headaches, Plaintiff testified that “light can be an onset for the headache. But once the headache [has] taken effect, light doesn't make much of a difference.” (R. 33.) Plaintiff stated that fluorescent lights “will trigger [her] right away.” (R. 39.) She also testified that she is sensitive to “[a]ny kind of sound” when experiencing her headaches. (R. 33.)

         Regarding activities of daily living, Plaintiff testified that she lives alone in a townhome owned by her parents. (R. 34.) She stated one reason she lives in a townhome is because her condition prevents her from doing lawn work and snow removal. (Id.) She also stated that she lives only a few minutes from her parents in case they need to assist her when she is “very sick.” (R. 34-35.) Plaintiff does not believe she requires “special assistance, ” but noted that she does not shower or care for her hair as much as she believes she should, due to her impairments. (R. 37.)[7] Plaintiff drives two to three times per week, but she prefers to do so during the day because “[v]ision is a little trickier” for her. (R. 35-36.)

         Plaintiff testified that her mother does most of her bulk grocery shopping, although Plaintiff will get “a few small groceries” when she picks up her prescriptions. (R. 36.) Plaintiff stated that she does most of the remainder of her shopping online and receives delivery right to her door so she is not required to “carry anything heavy.” (Id.) She testified that her typical day is spent mostly lying in bed, watching a little TV and reading. (R. 38.) She only gets out of bed “every once in a while to stretch [her] legs” or get something to eat. (Id.) Prior to her disability, she cooked meals for both herself and her family.[8] (Id.) Plaintiff testified that before her disability she used to be very active: playing both the piano and guitar, drawing, riding horses, and being outside. (R. 39.) Currently, however, aside from reading and occasionally playing the piano, her impairments make activities “a bit difficult.” (Id.) That said, she did testify later in the hearing that she rides horses every few weeks for short periods. (R. 43.) She testified that her friends do not come to visit because she is embarrassed about the state of her home. (R. 40.) She believes one of the reasons she cannot do housework is because she is not capable of prolonged lifting activity, and if she over-exerts herself, she cannot move the next day. (R. 42.) By way of example, she testified that she could not lift 20 or 25 pounds “for any length of time.” (Id.)

         2. Relevant Medical Evidence

         a. Tachycardia

          In 2009, Plaintiff was evaluated for numerous cardiopulmonary complaints, including shortness of breath and exertional fatigue. See, e.g., (R. 442-447, 470-73; see also R 16.) The results of the objective tests, including an electrocardiogram and electromyography, were normal. See, e.g., (R 442, 445, 472.) In September 2009, however, she was prescribed Inderal for tachycardia. (R. 424-25.) Plaintiff returned again the next month complaining that the Inderal wore off too quickly at low doses, and she was prescribed an extended release formulation of the medication. (Id.) Plaintiff also received at least six follow-up electrocardiograms between 2009 and 2014, with only one test-in June 2010-indicating an elevated ventricular heart rate; the remaining tests showed no change from the 2009 baseline test. See, e.g., (R. 465.) Other test results, such as from electroencephalography, a Holter monitor, chest imaging studies, various laboratory studies, and pulmonary function testing, were also normal. See, e.g., (R. 413, 414, 416, 446, 466, 470, 472.)

         b. Joint Pain Related to Autoimmune Disease

          Plaintiff was seen by several doctors, including her primary care physician Thomas McLeod, M.D., and her primary rheumatologist Clement Mitchet, M.D., regarding her complaints of joint pain and fatigue and concerns about a possible autoimmune disease, with no clear findings. See, e.g., (R. 341-44, 368-371, 363, 375, 388-91, 411, 416, 467.) For example, on February 23, 2010, Adam Sawatsky, M.D., another rheumatologist in Dr. Michet's practice, opined that Plaintiff “does not meet any rheumatologic picture for a clear diagnosis” and “does not meet any classic criteria for lupus.” (R. 411.) Objective tests including an ENA panel[9] and a DNA test were also normal. (Id.) Later that year, it was noted that Plaintiff's joint pain was stable on her current doses of medication. (R. 391.)

         In June 2010, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Mitchet in connection with “her possible early connective tissue disease syndrome.” (R. 407.) Dr. Mitchet reported that she was tolerating the medication well at the time and that there had been no “observed worsening of any inflammatory symptoms.” (Id.)

         In connection with a visit on February 15, 2011, the first time Dr. McLeod had seen Plaintiff in more than a year, he reported a normal physical examination with no evidence of active synovitis, and acknowledged that Plaintiff's “history and examination findings are not diagnostic, per se, of a defined collagen vascular disorder” but stated that her “improvement with Plaquenil therapy suggests possible evolving underlying connective tissue disorder.” (R. 375-78.) Two months later, Daniel Schaffer, a physician's assistant under the supervision of Dr. Mitchet, evaluated Plaintiff. (R. 368- 71.) Schaffer also noted a ...

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