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Misty G. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 22, 2019

Misty G., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge

         Misty G. brought this suit challenging the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of her claim for disability benefits. Ms. G and the Commissioner have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Pl.'s Mot., ECF No. 13; Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 15. Ms. G argues that the Commissioner's decision must be reversed because the denial of her benefits claim is not supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons stated below, Ms. G's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.

         I. Background

         Ms. G suffers from several severe impairments, including major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder (not otherwise specified), left ovarian cysts and migraine headaches. Tr. of Administrative Record (“R.”), at 19, ECF No. 12. The record also includes diagnoses of bipolar disorder, agoraphobia with panic disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”). R. 691, 694, 821, 823, 827, 833, 838, 841. Between September of 2000 and April of 2011, Ms. G held jobs as an assembler for a production company, an installer for a home improvement or construction business, a manager or supervisor of a café and apartments, and a stocker at a retail establishment. R. 198. She applied for disability benefits on July 18, 2014, alleging that she became unable to work on April 11, 2011 as a result of her chronic migraine headaches, depression, and anxiety. R. 171, 197.

         On an initial review, the SSA denied Ms. G's application. R. 71-84. Ms. G then requested reconsideration of that decision, but her claim was denied again. R. 87-98, 108. Ms. G next requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. 113-14. ALJ Denzel Busick (“ALJ Busick” or “the ALJ”) held a hearing on Ms. G's claim for benefits on January 19, 2017, at which Ms. G was represented by counsel and testified in support of her claim. R. 33-60. ALJ Busick also heard testimony from Steve Bosch, a vocational expert, concerning the availability of jobs for someone with specific limitations like Ms. G's. Id.

         After the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Ms. G's claim. R. 17- 28. He applied a five-step sequential evaluation to Ms. G's claim, as required by the SSA's regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ concluded that Ms. G had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 11, 2011. R. 19. ALJ Busick next determined that Ms. G had the severe impairments mentioned above: major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; left ovarian cysts; and headaches. R. 19. In determining Ms. G's severe impairments, the ALJ did not discuss the additional diagnoses of bipolar disorder, agoraphobia with panic disorder, and ADHD found in the records. R. 19. At the third step ALJ Busick found that Ms. G did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 19-21. Because the Listings were not satisfied, he determined Ms. G's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is shorthand for the most a claimant can do in a full-time job despite her impairments. R. 21-27. The ALJ found that Ms. G had the ability to lift and carry 50 pounds and 25 pounds frequently and was able to sit a total of six hours, as well as stand and walk, combined, a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. R. 21. However, Ms. G also required appropriate glasses or eyewear for vision. Most significantly for purposes of this case, the ALJ found that due to Ms. G's “moderate limitations in social functioning and in [maintaining] concentration, persistence, and pace, ... [she] is limited to work that involves brief and superficial contact with others while performing only simple, routine, and repetitive tasks of two to three steps on average.” R. 21. Based on this RFC, ALJ Busick determined that Ms. G can perform her past relevant work as an electronics assembler, so she was not disabled between the alleged onset date (April 11, 2011) and her date last insured (March 31, 2016). R. 27-28.

         Ms. G sought review of the ALJ's decision at the Social Security Appeals Council. However, the Appeals Council denied the request for further review, which made ALJ Busick's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Ms. G filed this lawsuit, claiming that the ALJ's decision is the result of legal error and is not supported by substantial evidence.

         II. Legal Standard

         Review of the Commissioner's denial of an application for disability benefits is limited and deferential, requiring the denial to be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but must be sufficient that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). A reviewing court is required to consider the evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Bergmann v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000). The Commissioner's decision should only be disturbed if it lies outside the available zone of choice. Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 936 (8th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). And a decision is not outside the available zone of choice merely because the court could reach a different conclusion if it were the initial fact finder. Nicola v. Astrue, 480 F.3d 885, 886 (8th Cir. 2007). A court should only reverse the ALJ where the record “contains insufficient evidence to support the outcome.” Id.

         III. Discussion

         Ms. G raises two issues in her summary-judgment motion. First, she argues that ALJ erred by failing to assess whether her bipolar disorder, agoraphobia with panic disorder, and ADHD are severe or non-severe impairments. Second, she contends that the ALJ erred by failing to consider her mental impairments and her migraines in combination. For the reasons discussed below, neither of these arguments requires reversal of the Commissioner's decision.

         A. Severe Impairments

         Ms. G asserts that ALJ Busick failed to assess whether her bipolar disorder, agoraphobia with panic disorder, and ADHD diagnoses were severe or non-severe impairments at step two of the sequential evaluation. Pl.'s Mem. at 3-5. At the second step, the SSA considers “the medical severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment must meet a twelve-month durational requirement to be considered severe. Karlix v. Barnhart, 457 F.3d 742, 746 (8th cir. 2006). “An impairment is not severe if it amounts only to a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). The claimant bears the burden of establishing that a given impairment is severe. Id. at 707-08 (citing Mittlestedt v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2000).

         1. The Step-Two Discussion

         Here, the ALJ's discussion of the issues at step two was rather conclusory. After listing the impairments found to be ...

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