United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
DARRELL E. BIGGERSTAFF, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,  Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER 
M. BODENHAUSEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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).
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. (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.
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)
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)
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.
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. (Tr. 37-64) A vocational expert
(“VE”) also testified. (Tr. 64-70)
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.
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).
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.
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).
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
4. Plaintiff's complaints regarding exertional and
non-exertional activities and impairments;
5. Any corroboration by third parties of Plaintiff's
6. The testimony of vocational experts when required,
including any hypothetical questions setting forth
Stewart v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957
F.2d 581, 585-86 (8th Cir. 1992).
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.”).
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)
the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”). After reviewing the relevant
evidence of record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC
[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 ...