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Marlene M. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 27, 2019

Marlene M., Plaintiff,
Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Jacob P. Reitan, (for Plaintiff); and

          Michael Moss, Special Assistant United States Attorney, (for Defendant).


          Tony N. Leung United States Magistrate Judge


         Plaintiff Marlene M. brings the present case, contesting Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's partially favorable decision on her applications for disability insurance and disabled widow's benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the same, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. The parties have consented to a final judgment from the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, and D. Minn. LR 72.1(c).

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 14, 17.) Being duly advised of all the files, records, and proceedings herein, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 14) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART; the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 17) is DENIED; and this matter is remanded for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for benefits asserting that she has been disabled since July 14, 2014 due to liver disease, diabetes, depression, pain, and obesity. (Tr. 20, 90, 105, 121.) Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 20, 87-89, 103, 118, 134, 154, 172, 190, 192-94.) Plaintiff then appealed by requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 20, 219.)

         The ALJ held a hearing in January 2017. (Tr. 20, 45, 47.) The ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding and concluding that Plaintiff became disabled on September 4, 2016. (Tr. 32.) Plaintiff subsequently requested review from the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review. (Tr. 1-5.) Plaintiff then filed the instant action, challenging the ALJ's decision. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 14, 17.) This matter is now fully briefed and ready for a determination on the papers.


         This Court reviews whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Boettcher v. Astrue, 652 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011). “Substantial evidence means less than a preponderance but enough that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the decision.” Id. This standard requires the Court to “consider both evidence that detracts from the [ALJ's] decision and evidence that supports it.” Id. The ALJ's decision “will not [be] reverse[d] simply because some evidence supports a conclusion other than that reached by the ALJ.” Perks v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1091 (8th Cir. 2012). “The court must affirm the [ALJ's] decision if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.” Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016) (quotation omitted). Thus, “[i]f, after reviewing the record, the court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision.” Perks, 687 F.3d at 1091 (quotation omitted); accord Chaney, 812 F.3d at 676.

         Disability benefits are available to individuals who are determined to be under a disability. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1), 1381a; accord 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.315, 416.901. An individual is considered to be disabled if 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); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). This standard is met when a severe physical or mental impairment, or impairments, renders the individual unable to do her previous work or “any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy” when taking into account her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         Disability is determined according to a five-step, sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

To determine disability, the ALJ follows the familiar five-step process, considering whether: (1) the claimant was employed; (2) she was severely impaired; (3) her impairment was, or was comparable to, a listed impairment; (4) she could perform past relevant work; and if not, (5) whether she could perform any other kind of work.

Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010). In general, the burden of proving the existence of disability lies with the claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(a), 416.912(a).

         A. Residual Functional Capacity

         The sole issue in this case is the weight accorded to the opinion evidence regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform the physical exertional requirements of light work.[1] A claimant's “residual functional capacity is the most [she] can do despite [her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); accord 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1); see McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 614 (8th Cir. 2011) (“A claimant's [residual functional capacity] represents the most he can do despite the combined effects of all of his credible limitations and must be based on all credible evidence.”). “Because a claimant's [residual functional capacity] is a medical question, an ALJ's assessment of it must be supported by some medical evidence of the claimant's ability to function in the workplace.” Perks, 687 F.3d at 1092 (quotation omitted). “Medical records, physician observations, and the claimant's subjective statements about h[er] capabilities may be used to support the [residual functional capacity].” Id. “Even though the [residual-functional-capacity] assessment draws from medical sources for support, it is ultimately an administrative determination reserved to the Commissioner.” Id. (quotation omitted); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c), 416.946(c).

         B. Physical Exertional Requirements: Light & Sedentary Work

         Under the regulations,

[l]ight work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do substantially all of these activities.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b); accord 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) (same).

         And, under the regulations,

[s]edentary work involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools. Although a sedentary job is defined as one which involves sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in carrying out job duties. Jobs are sedentary if walking and standing are required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are met.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a); accord 20 C.F.R. § 416.67(a) (same).

         C. Opinion Evidence

         1. Treating Physicians

         a. ...

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