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Kimberly S. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 22, 2019

Kimberly S., Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge

         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. 13; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 16.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that Kimberly S.'s (hereafter “Ms. S.”) motion for summary judgment be DENIED and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be GRANTED.

         I. Factual Background and ALJ Decision

          Ms. S. first filed for supplemental security income on December 2, 2014, alleging disability beginning on June 1, 2011. (R. 65.) Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 89, 97.) She timely requested a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Roger Thomas, which was held on November 29, 2016. (R. 31.) On December 16, 2016, ALJ Thomas issued an unfavorable decision.

         A. ALJ Thomas's Decision

         ALJ Thomas followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether Ms. S. is disabled. At Step One, ALJ Thomas determined that Ms. S. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her claimed date of disability. (R. 17.) He noted that while she had worked since her alleged onset date, it did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. (Id.)

         At Step Two, ALJ Thomas determined that Ms. S. had two severe impairments: asthma and systemic lupus erythematosus (“SLE”). (R. 17.) He also evaluated Ms. S.'s other medically determinable mental impairments, major depression and ADHD, but found that they were both nonsevere. (R. 18.) In making this determination, he considered the four functional areas set out in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, often referred to as the “paragraph B” criteria. These four areas are activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation.

         ALJ Thomas determined that Ms. S. has only mild limitations in activities of daily living in light of her capacity for taking care of herself and a household, despite reporting a lack of energy for doing so. (R. 19.) Ms. S. reported being able to cook and clean, dividing household chores with her boyfriend. (R. 210-211, 229-230.) She cares for two cats, including feeding, bathing, trimming claws, and cleaning their litter box. (R. 210, 229.) She also shops in stores one or two times a week. (R. 212.) ALJ Thomas also found that Ms. S. has only mild limitations in the area of social functioning. (R. 19.) She lives with her boyfriend, and regularly chats online with and visits her best friend. (R. 213.) Similarly, ALJ Thomas found that Ms. S. has mild limitations in the area of concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 19.) He found that although she needs reminders for appointments and medication and has a somewhat limited attention span, she is capable of working as a freelancer, as well as using a computer and cell phone to help her organize. (R. 19.) In the fourth area, the ALJ noted that Ms. S. has not experienced any episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (R. 19.) Because she did not have two or more marked limitations, or one marked limitation and an episode of decompensation of an extended duration, ALJ Thomas concluded that Ms. S.'s mental impairments were non-severe. (R. 19-20; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(d)(1).)

         At Step Three, ALJ Thomas found that none of Ms. S.'s impairments, separately or in combination, met or equaled the severity of any listed impairments. He considered Listing 3.03, asthma, but found that Ms. S.'s symptoms did not meet the criteria. (R. 20.) Similarly, he considered listing 14.02 for SLE, but again found that the criteria for the listing was not met by Ms. S.'s symptoms. (Id.)

         At Step Four, ALJ Thomas determined that Ms. S. has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with additional restrictions. Specifically, he limited Ms. S. to standing or walking for only two hours per eight-hour work day; a sit/stand option after 20 minutes of weight bearing; no exposure to temperatures above 90 degrees or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit; and no exposure to wetness, humidity, dusts, fumes, gases, and hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. (R. 20.) He then determined that Ms. S. could perform her past relevant work as a sales clerk or office clerk. (R. 23.) Instead of halting his inquiry there, ALJ Thomas proceeded to Step Five in order to make an alternative finding.

         At Step Five, ALJ Thomas found in the alternative that there were sufficient jobs in the national economy that she is able to perform. In making this determination, he found that transferability of job skills was not material to the disability determination, and therefore did not engage in a transferability analysis. (R. 23-24.) Having determined that Ms. S. was capable of working, ALJ Thomas found that she was not disabled.

         After this unfavorable determination, Ms. S. sought review by the Appeals council, which denied her request. (R. 1-6.) Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final determination of the Commissioner, making Ms. S.'s case ripe review by this Court.

         B. Ms. S.'s Employment History

         Of particular relevance in this case is Ms. S.'s employment history. During college, she worked at her university as a student worker. (R. 193.) This job entailed a variety of office tasks, such as making deliveries, filing, transcription, making copies, and answering phones. (R. 202, 204.) She was also permitted to study during her work hours. (R. 202, 204.) As a student worker, Ms. S. only worked 3-4 hours per day, 3 days a week. (R. 202, 204.)

         After leaving school, Ms. S. began work as a part-time manager at a comic book store. She performed a variety of tasks in this role, including cashiering, restocking, cleaning, organizing comics, assisting customers, taking calls, and supervising two other employees. (R. 203.) Though her supervisor made accommodations for her physical limitations, Ms. S. eventually quit the job because it was too physically and mentally demanding. (R. 44-45.) Ms. S. is not currently employed, but earns a small income ($60-$80 per month) as a freelance artist. (R. 36- 37.)

         II. ...


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