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Long M. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 17, 2019

Long M., Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          ORDER

          ELIZABETH COWAN WRIGHT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Long M.'s (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 13) (“Motion”) and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant”) Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 16) (“Cross Motion”). Plaintiff filed this case seeking judicial review of a final decision by Defendant denying his application for disability insurance benefits. He specifically challenges the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) evaluation of the treating opinions of Plaintiff's physician and psychologist and the assessment of his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's Motion is denied, and Defendant's Cross Motion is granted

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on February 27, 2015, alleging disability beginning February 26, 2014. (R. 188-89.)[1] His application was denied initially (R. 68) and on reconsideration (R. 95). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on March 21, 2017 before ALJ Charles Thorbjornsen. (R. 16.) The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 1, 2017. (R. 13.) Following the five-step sequential evaluation process under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a), the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 26, 2014, the alleged onset date. (R. 18.)

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: major depression. (R. 18.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's other physical impairments were not severe, including: a cerebrovascular accident (“CVA”) (stroke); diabetes; hypertension; hyperlipidemia; chronic kidney disease (“CKD”); renal insufficiency; right eye impairment; loss of bladder and bowel control; and pain, numbness, and weakness in the upper and lower extremities. (R. 19.) The ALJ noted that each of these impairments were not severe as they had not been shown to more than minimally interfere with Plaintiff's ability to engage in basic work activities. (R. 19-22.)

         At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 23.) The ALJ considered the “paragraph B” criteria as to Plaintiff's mental impairment, namely major depression, but determined that Plaintiff had mild limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information and in adapting or managing oneself. (R. 23-24.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in interacting with others and in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. (R. 24.) Because Plaintiff's mental impairment did not cause at least two “marked” limitations or one “extreme” limitation, the ALJ opined that the “paragraph B” criteria were not satisfied. 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.00.

         The ALJ also determined that the “paragraph C” criteria were not met. Id. (“To satisfy the paragraph C criteria, your mental disorder must be ‘serious and persistent'; that is, there must be a medically documented history of the existence of the disorder over a period of at least 2 years, and evidence that satisfies the criteria in both C1 and C2 (see 12.00G).”).

         At step four, after reviewing the entire record, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations:

He is limited to performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks. Interaction with supervisors is limited to occasional. Interaction with coworkers and the general public is limited to occasional brief and superficial contact with superficial contact being defined as no lower than an 8 in terms of the fifth digit of the DOT code.

(R. 25.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is capable of past relevant work as a machine packager, which the vocational expert (“VE”) testified a hypothetical individual with the determined RFC could perform. (R. 27-28.)

         Alternatively, at step five, the ALJ asked the VE what other jobs a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience could perform in the national economy. (R. 28.) Given all the factors, the VE testified that such an individual could perform jobs such as kitchen helper, laundry worker, hand packager, and cleaner, which exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 28.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (R. 29.)

         Plaintiff requested review of the decision. (R. 1.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, which made the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1.) Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review. 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. LEGAL STANDARD

         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), or if the ALJ's decision resulted from an error of law. Nash v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Administration, 907 F.3d 1086, 1089 (8th Cir. 2018) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Chismarich v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 978, 979 (8th Cir. 2018)). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusions.” Id. (quoting Travis v. Astrue, 477 F.3d 1037, 1040 (8th Cir. 2007)). The Court “considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Id. “If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusions, this court does not reverse even if it would reach a different conclusion, or merely because substantial evidence also supports the contrary outcome.” Id.

         “A disability claimant has the burden to establish her RFC.” Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). The Eighth Circuit has held that “a ‘claimant's residual functional capacity is a medical question.'” Id. (quoting Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001)). “‘[S]ome medical evidence' must support the determination of the claimant's RFC, and the ALJ should obtain medical evidence that addresses the claimant's ‘ability to function in the workplace.'” Id. (quoting Dykes v. Apfel, 223 F.3d 865, 867 (8th Cir. 2000) (per curiam)). However, “there is no requirement that an RFC finding be supported by a specific medical opinion.” Hensley v. Colvin, 829 F.3d 926, 932 (8th Cir. 2016) (citing Myers v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 521, 526-27 (8th Cir. 2013); Perks v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1092-93 (8th Cir. 2012)).

         “[A] treating physician's opinion is given ‘controlling weight' if it ‘is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence.'” Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005) (alteration in original) (quoting Dolph v. Barnhart, 308 F.3d 876, 878 (8th Cir. 2002)). However, an ALJ may properly “discount or even disregard the opinion of a treating physician where other medical assessments ‘are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence' or where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions.” Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1013 (8th Cir. 2000) (quoting Rogers v. Chater, 118 F.3d 600, 602 (8th Cir. 1997) and citing Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1324-25 (8th Cir. 1996)). “A treating physician's own inconsistency may also undermine his opinion and diminish or eliminate the weight given his opinions.” Id. (citing Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1013 (8th Cir. 2000)); see also Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012) (“However, ‘[a]n ALJ may discount or even disregard the opinion of a treating physician where other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence, or where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions.'”) (quoting Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010)) (alteration in original) (internal quotation omitted). In any case, “the ALJ must ‘always give good reasons' for the particular weight given to a treating physician's evaluation.” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(d)(2)).

         An ALJ should consider several factors, in addition to the objective medical evidence, in assessing a claimant's subjective symptoms, including daily activities; work history; intensity, duration, and frequency of symptoms; any side effects and efficacy of medications; triggering and aggravating factors; and functional restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *5-7 (S.S.A. Mar. 16, 2016) (listing these factors as relevant in evaluating the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of a person's symptoms). But the ALJ need not explicitly discuss each factor. See Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 791 (8th Cir. 2005). “Moreover, an ALJ's failure to cite specific evidence does not indicate that such evidence was not considered.” Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 966 (8th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted) (highly unlikely that ALJ did not consider and reject physician's opinion when ALJ made specific references to other findings set forth in physician's notes).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff makes three challenges to the ALJ's determination. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC assessment fails to properly incorporate the mental limitations from Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Mr. Willie B. Garrett, LP (“Garrett”). Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC assessment fails to properly incorporate the physical limitations from Plaintiff's treating physician, Shihshen (Angela) Yiu, M.D. (“Dr. Yiu”). Third, Plaintiff argues that the ...


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