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Rifenburg v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division

June 16, 2017

SARAH F. RIFENBURG, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff Sarah Rifenburg petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including obesity, lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, lumbar spine peripheral neuropathy, degenerative arthritis of the bilateral knees, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and thyroid disease, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work as a tourist information assistant.

         As explained below, the Court finds the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The Commissioner's decision is therefore AFFIRMED.

         Procedural and Factual Background

         The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.

         Plaintiff filed the pending applications on July 8, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2010. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. On October 16, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing and on March 2, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 22, 2016, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Standard of Review

         A federal court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. Id. The court must “defer heavily” to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice; a decision is not outside this zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).

         Discussion

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process[1] to determine whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by discounting: (1) the opinion of a nurse practitioner; and (2) Plaintiff's credibility. Due to these alleged errors, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ's RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence.

         I. The ALJ did not err in discounting the opinion of a nurse practitioner.

         First, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in discounting the opinion of nurse practitioner Stephanie Voorhis, NPC (“Ms. Voorhis”) and, as a result, the ALJ's RFC findings were not supported by substantial evidence.

         “[T]o establish a disability or impairment, the Social Security Administration requires ‘evidence from acceptable medical sources.'” Crawford v. Colvin, 809 F.3d 404, 408 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(a)). The list of acceptable medical sources includes licensed physicians, psychologists, and optometrists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(a). In addition to these acceptable medical sources, an ALJ may consider evidence from other sources, including nurse practitioners and social welfare agency personnel. Id. ยงยง 416.913(d)(1), (d)(3). An ALJ has ...


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