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Biggerstaff v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

January 31, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Darrell E. Biggerstaff (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant”) denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”), under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. Because Defendant's decision is supported by substantial evidence and correctly applies the governing law, it is AFFIRMED. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Factual Background

         At the time of his applications, Plaintiff was 48 years old. Plaintiff alleged disability due to (1) narcolepsy, (2) “back and foot problems, ” and (3) depression. (Tr. 216, 266-67, 519) According to Plaintiff, his narcolepsy problems began in “1996 or 1997” and became “really bad” by 1999. (Tr. 266) Plaintiff alleges that his condition precludes his ability to work because he sleeps up to 14 or 15 hours per day. (Tr. 51-53) The medical evidence before the Court indicates that Plaintiff was periodically treated for narcolepsy from at least September of 2008, until the administrative hearing in this matter.[3] (See, e.g., Tr. 262, 351) Until February of 2013, however, Plaintiff's symptoms were severe and apparently poorly controlled due to a lack of routine care. (Tr. 315) In March of 2013, Plaintiff began using Adderal. As a result, Plaintiff's narcolepsy stabilized and his symptoms improved. (Tr. 318, 320, 324) By April 3, 2013, Plaintiff was “feeling better, ” and “sleeping less[].” (Tr. 324) Plaintiff was continued on Adderall, and instructed to “keep himself active and not [] sit for a long time or lie down during the day.” (Tr. 326) At a follow-up visit in June of 2013, Plaintiff stated that his “symptoms are fairly controlled” with Adderall. Plaintiff was “able to carry out activities, ” and had “no complaints.” (Tr. 332) In August of 2013, Plaintiff was “stable on Adderall” (Tr. 341), and in November of 2013, Plaintiff remained “stable, ” and “deni[ed] any complaints” regarding his narcolepsy. (Tr. 348) Through at least February of 2014, Plaintiff's narcolepsy remained stable with Adderall. (Tr. 351)

         Plaintiff alleges that he sustained back and foot issues when he fell from a tree in approximately 1990. (Tr. 267) According to Plaintiff, he suffered compression fractures in his lower back “from LS to L5” as a result of the fall. (Id.) In the medical records, these injuries are diagnosed as “pain and dysfunction of [Plaintiff's] left ankle and foot.” (Tr. 268) There are few medical records directly dealing with these musculoskeletal issues. For instance, x-rays taken on January 8, 2013 show only a “small subchondral defect” which “may relate to [Plaintiff's] prior trauma, ” but there was “no evidence for acute fracture or dislocation.” (Tr. 279) In November of 2012, Plaintiff's back issues were evaluated in connection with his disability application. This evaluation found no evidence of lower extremity atrophy. Plaintiff's gait was normal, and he was able to walk on toes and heels. Plaintiff's straight leg raising test produced an abnormal result, but the examiner questioned the validity of Plaintiff's response to this test because Plaintiff “writhed on the exam table complaining of severe back pain during the whole exam.” (Tr. 268)

         Plaintiff also complained of musculoskeletal issues resulting from a moped crash in June 2013. As a result of his moped accident, Plaintiff suffered a skull fracture, right rib fractures, right clavicle and scapular fractures, and a “floating shoulder.” (Tr. 300) Plaintiff had surgery to address some of his injuries, and was released in stable condition. (Id.) By July 12, 2013, diagnostic imaging showed that Plaintiff was healing (Tr. 512), and by August 1, 2013, Plaintiff had substantially recovered. (Tr. 511) It appears that Plaintiff did not seek any further musculoskeletal treatment until at least February of 2014. (Tr. 315, 511)

         As to Plaintiff's mental impairment allegations, Plaintiff was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder in January of 2013, by Dr. Karen A. MacDonald, Psy.D. (Tr. 517-19) In May 2013, Plaintiff was hospitalized for a few days due to suicidal thoughts. (Tr. 283) In June 2013, Plaintiff began treatment with psychiatrist Dr. Radhika Rao, M.D. Dr. Rao treated Plaintiff several additional times, each of which involved a 15-minute checkup, which appear to have been mostly for medication management. (See Tr. 377, 382, 387, and 392) These appointments appear to be the extent of Plaintiff's treatment for depression.[4]

         II. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI benefits on October 9, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2009. (Tr. 20, 216, 267) Plaintiff later amended his alleged onset date to November 26, 2012. For DIB purposes, Plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2012. After Plaintiff's claims were initially denied (Tr. 91), he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). On June 11, 2014, Plaintiff appeared at the hearing (with counsel) to testify about his disability and functional limitations.[5] (Tr. 37-64) A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. (Tr. 64-70)

         After receiving Plaintiff's testimony and evaluating the evidence submitted in the case, the ALJ issued a decision dated July 10, 2014, denying Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 20-30) Plaintiff sought review with the Appeals Council, which denied review on November 16, 2015. (Tr. 1-5) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff's complaint is now properly before this Court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in failing to give good reasons for giving limited weight to the opinions of three medical sources, and for improperly discounting Plaintiff's credibility.

         III. Standard of Review

          “To be eligible for [disability] benefits, [Plaintiff] must prove that [he] is disabled ….” Baker v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992); see also Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). A disability is defined as the “inability 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) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant will be found to have a disability “only if his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).

         Per regulations promulgated by the Commissioner, the ALJ follows a five-step process in determining whether a claimant is disabled. “During the process the ALJ must determine: ‘1) whether the claimant is currently employed; 2) whether the claimant is severely impaired; 3) whether the impairment is, or is comparable to, a listed impairment; 4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and if not 5) whether the claimant can perform any other kind of work.'” Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 936 (8th Cir. 2006)). “If, at any point in the five-step process the claimant fails to meet the criteria, the claimant is determined not to be disabled and the process ends.” Id. (citing Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005)); see also Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 921 (8th Cir. 2011).

         The Eight Circuit has repeatedly emphasized that a district court's review of an ALJ's disability determination is intended to be narrow and that courts should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration.” Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001)). The ALJ's findings should be affirmed if they are supported by “substantial evidence” on the record as a whole. See Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is “less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept it as adequate to support a decision.” Juszczyk v. Astrue, 542 F.3d 626, 631 (8th Cir. 2008).

         Despite this deferential stance, a district court's review must be “more than an examination of the record for the existence of substantial evidence in support of the Commissioner's decision.” Beckley v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 1056, 1059 (8th Cir. 1998). The district court must “also take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from that decision.” Id. Specifically, in reviewing the Commissioner's decision, a district court is required to examine the entire administrative record and consider:

1. The credibility findings made by the ALJ;
2. Plaintiff's vocational factors;
3. The medical evidence from treating and consulting physicians;
4. Plaintiff's complaints regarding exertional and non-exertional activities and impairments;
5. Any corroboration by third parties of Plaintiff's impairments;
6. The testimony of vocational experts when required, including any hypothetical questions setting forth Plaintiff's impairments.

Stewart v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 581, 585-86 (8th Cir. 1992).

         Finally, a reviewing court should not disturb the ALJ's decision unless it falls outside the available “zone of choice” defined by the evidence of record. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011). A decision does not fall outsize that zone simply because this Court might have reached a different conclusion had it been the original finder of fact. See also McNamara v. Astrue, 590 F.3d 607, 610 (8th Cir. 2010) (explaining that if substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, the court “may not reverse, even if inconsistent conclusions may be drawn from the evidence, and [the court] may have reached a different outcome.”).

         IV. ALJ's Decision

         In determining that Plaintiff was not disabled, the ALJ followed the five-step process for evaluating disability applications discussed above. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 22) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “narcolepsy; depression; and the residual effects of traumatic injuries.” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 23)[6]

         Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). After reviewing the relevant evidence of record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform:

[medium work], except he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He must avoid hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. He cannot drive as part of his job. He is capable of simple, routine tasks. He can have only occasional interaction, defined as no more than one-third of the total workday, with coworkers and supervisors. He is limited to occupations that can be performed in a non-public work setting ...

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