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Mai V. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 20, 2019

Mai V., Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge

         Mai V. (hereinafter “Ms. V”) brought this action challenging the denial of her Social Security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”).[1] This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Pl.'s Mot., ECF No. 14; Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 16. For the reasons set forth below, Ms. V's motion is denied, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and this matter is dismissed.

         I. Background

         Ms. V is a forty-one-year-old immigrant from Thailand with a high school education. For many years, she has suffered from fatigue, depression, anxiety, anemia chronic pain, muscle stiffness, and tremors in her extremities. She has sought treatment from myriad medical professionals and has been diagnosed with several different conditions. These ailments have resulted in Ms. V oscillating between various medication regimens in the hope of managing her symptoms. Throughout the record are persistent complaints by Ms. V of fatigue, anxiety, muscle tightness and torpor. Also consistent are conflicts between differing medical assessments regarding the severity and extent of Ms. V's impairments as well as instances of medication noncompliance.

         Ms. V filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on March 6, 2015. Admin. R. (“R”) at 305-09, ECF No. 12. She alleged disability benefits beginning May 1, 2014. R. at 305. The SSA denied her claims on April 29, 2015, and upon reconsideration on July 15, 2015. R. at 200-05, 212-18. Subsequently, Ms. V requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 219-20. On May 24, 2017, ALJ Virginia Kuhn heard testimony from Ms. V and medical expert Dr. James P. Felling, Ph.D, who specializes in clinical psychology. R. at 14, 67. Following testimony, Ms. V agreed to amend her onset date to September 16, 2015, at which point ALJ Kuhn ended the hearing. R. at 79-80.

         On July 7, 2017, ALJ Kuhn referred Ms. V's case to the agency's Office of Inspector General, Cooperative Disability Investigations Unit (“CDI”) on suspicion of malingering. R. at 335, 340. Following the referral, Special Agent Schmiel set up surveillance outside of Ms. V's home on August 1, 2017. R. at 341. During surveillance, Special Agent Schmiel followed a vehicle driven by Ms. V's boyfriend departing from Ms. V's residence to an Ikea store in Bloomington, Minnesota. Id. Upon arrival, Ms. V, her boyfriend, and her three young children all exited the vehicle and entered the store together. Once inside, Special Agent Schmiel tracked Ms. V for at least forty minutes. R. at 342. During this time, Ms. V held her toddler son while they rode up an escalator together, spoke on her cellphone, took a picture of her children sitting on a bed, inspected items, and manipulated a rug without noticeable difficulty. R. at 341-42. Ms. V was also observed walking independently without an assistive device, maintained a normal gait, did not have a noticeable tremor, only sat down twice (each time for only a few moments), and was not noticeably anxious or distressed despite being surrounded by other shoppers. Id. After making these observations for nearly an hour of shopping, Special Agent Schmiel broke off surveillance. R. at 342. CDI subsequently put together a report describing the results of the investigation.

         The CDI report was issued on September 5, 2017. R. at 336. The report was served on the parties and Ms. V requested a supplemental hearing. R. at 270. Before the second hearing, the CDI report as well as additional medical records were added into the record. A supplemental hearing was held on February 27, 2018. R. at 81, 295. During the second hearing, testimony was taken from Ms. V, her boyfriend, and a vocational expert (“VE”), Jesse Ogren. R. at 88, 102, 118. ALJ Kuhn issued a written decision denying Ms. V's claim on June 26, 2018. R. at 14.

         In her decision, ALJ Kuhn followed the five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 420.1520(a)-(g). R. at 15-17. The ALJ found that Ms. V had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) and currently has several severe impairments, including: 1) major depressive disorder; 2) generalized anxiety disorder; 3) post-traumatic stress disorder; 4) spastic paraparesis; and 5) degenerative disc disease of the spine. R. at 17. The ALJ determined that Ms. V's diagnoses of hypertension and thyroid disorder only minimally affected her ability to work, and thus were not severe impairments. Id. ALJ Kuhn also determined that there was insufficient evidence in the record to consider bipolar disorder and fibromyalgia as medically determinable impairments. Id. Despite having several severe impairments, none of them, alone or in combination, were sufficient to meet the listed impairments found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. at 17-24.

         Next, the ALJ determined Ms. V's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Specifically, ALJ Kuhn found that Ms. V retained the capacity to perform light work with additional limitations, including that Ms. V's work must: 1) consist of routine 3-4 step tasks; 2) have fixed, predictable instructions; 3) be limited to occasional brief and superficial contact with co-workers and the public; 4) not require teamwork and collaboration; 5) not have high production quotas; 6) not consist of work at unprotected heights, with hazards, or tasks that would require balancing; 7) not require climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds with only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; and 8) only require occasional stooping, kneeling and crouching, and no crawling. R. at 24. Due to these limitations, Ms. V was not able to return to her previous work. R. at 33. However, based on Ms. V's age, work experience, RFC and the testimony of VE Jesse Ogren, ALJ Kuhn found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. V can perform. R. at 33. Work as a housekeeper, garment bagger, inserter, and other sedentary work[2] were all jobs that fit within Ms. V's RFC. R. at 33-35. Therefore, Ms. V was found not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. R. at 35.

         Ms. V sought review of the ALJ's decision from the Social Security Appeals Council, but her request was denied. R. at 1-5. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final ruling of the Commissioner. She brings this action arguing primarily that the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record. Thus, Ms. V seeks a remand with instructions to obtain more medical opinions regarding the effect of her combination of impairments.

         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. Gann v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 947, 950 (8th Cir. 2017); Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but is such relevant evidence that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the ALJ's determination. Blackburn v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 853, 858 (8th Cir. 2014). A reviewing court must consider not only the evidence that supports the conclusion, but also that which detracts from it. Bergmann v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000). However, the Commissioner's decision will not be reversed simply because substantial evidence might also support a different conclusion. Gann, 864 F.3d at 950. So long as the Commissioner's decision falls within the “available zone of choice, ” it should be affirmed. Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 936 (8th Cir. 2006). In other words, where the Commissioner's decision is among the reasonable conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence on the record as a whole, it will not be disturbed. See Nicola v. Astrue, 480 F.3d 885, 886 (8th Cir. 2007); Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. V raises two main arguments in response to the Commissioner's denial. First, relying on the Eighth Circuit's decision in Pate-Fires v. Astrue, Ms. V argues that the ALJ erroneously “played doctor” by determining that Ms. V's issues were the result of medication non-compliance. 564 F.3d 935 (8th Cir. 2008). Next, she contends that the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record to ...

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