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Amy L. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 23, 2019

Amy L., Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Amy L. seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits. She specifically challenges (1) the ALJ’s finding that her head injury was not a severe impairment (2) the ALJ’s consideration of her work history in his assessment of her subjective complaints. The case is before the Court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Plaintiff’s motion and grants the Commissioner’s motion.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on March 12, 2015, alleging an onset of disability date of March 1, 2008. (See R. 148 [Doc. No. 10].) The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was convened on June 15, 2017. (R. 26). Plaintiff amended her onset of disability date to May 16, 2010, at the hearing. (R. 10.)

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 9, 2017. (R. 7–20.) Following the five-step sequential evaluation outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 16, 2010, through her date last insured of December 31, 2014. (R. 12.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments of: “history of right total hip arthroplasty, with dislocation in November 2013; and degenerative disc disease in the cervical and lumbar spine.” (R. 12.)[1] The ALJ acknowledged evidence of other physical and mental impairments, including Plaintiff’s head injury and claimed residual effects, and engaged in a lengthy discussion of those impairments as part of his step two analysis. (R. 13–16.)

         Proceeding to the third step of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff’s impairments, considered alone or in combination, met or equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (R. 16.) The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s right hip impairment under Listings 1.02 and 1.03 and Plaintiff’s cervical and lumbar spine impairments under Listing 1.04. (R. 17.)

         The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), with additional restrictions on climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, reaching, and exposure to heights. (R. 17.) With this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a credit analyst. (R. 19.) Consequently, the ALJ deemed Plaintiff not disabled. (R. 20.)

         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. Standard of Review

         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). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner’s conclusion.” Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002) (citing Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court must examine “evidence that detracts from the Commissioner’s decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Id. (citing Craig v. Apfel, 212 F.3d 433, 436 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court may not reverse the ALJ’s decision simply because substantial evidence would support a different outcome or the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. (citing Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993)). In other words, if it is possible to reach two inconsistent positions from the evidence, and one of those positions is that of the Commissioner, the Court must affirm the decision. Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992).

         A claimant has the burden to prove disability. See Roth v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 279, 282 (8th Cir. 1995). To meet the definition of disability for DIB, the claimant must establish that 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). The disability, not just the impairment, must have lasted or be expected to last for at least twelve months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).

         III. Discussion

         A. Whether the ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff’s Head Injury at Step Two

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by not deeming her head injury and residual effects a severe impairment at the second step of the sequential evaluation. The relevant timeframe is May 16, 2010 (the onset of disability date), through December 31, 2014 (the date last insured).

         1. Relevant Legal Standards

         At step two, the claimant must show she has an impairment that significantly limits her ability to work in most jobs. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521(b)). “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). That is, the impairment must have “more than a minimal effect on the claimant’s ability to work.” Id. A claimant’s “age, education, and work experience” are not relevant to the step two inquiry. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Rather, “medical evidence alone is evaluated in order to assess the effects of the impairment(s) on ability to do basic work activities.” SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, at *4. The severity showing “is not an onerous requirement for the claimant to meet, . . . but it is also not a toothless standard.” Kirby, 500 F.3d at 708 (citations omitted).

         2. The ALJ’s Findings

         In assessing Plaintiff’s head injury and related limitations at step two, the ALJ considered and summarized the following evidence.

         Plaintiff suffered a left frontal parenchymal hemorrhage, left subdural hematoma, and right occipital and orbital fractures after she fell during a syncopal episode on May 16, 2010. (R. 13.) She was hospitalized for six days, during which she was monitored and her fractures conservatively managed. (R. 13.) Plaintiff experienced mild limitations in mobility, conditioning, walking, daily activities, and cognitive functioning while she was hospitalized. (R. 13.) One month after the head injury, Plaintiff reported occasional-but resolving-headaches, dizziness, and double vision at a neurosurgical follow-up appointment. (R. 13.) Her motor strength was fully intact. (R. 13.) On August 2, 2010, she reported continued improvement and was discharged from further neurological follow-up. (R. 13.) Plaintiff saw Dr. Dana Barr for medication refills in August 2010 and reported head pain. (R. 13.) Other than high blood pressure, no other physical or mental complaints were noted. (R. 13.) Her medications at that time were Lopressor, Zoloft, and Flexeril. (R. 13.)

         Plaintiff returned to Dr. Barr a year later, in September 2011, for medication refills. (R. 14.) She said she had no sense of taste or smell since the head injury, but she reported no other ongoing conditions. (R. 14.) She did not report debilitating headaches and said she took Ansaid and Excedrin for acute headaches. (R. 14.) Dr. Barr refilled her prescriptions for Ansaid and Lopressor for migraine headaches. (R. 14.) Dr. Barr also prescribed Vicodin ...

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