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Hernandez v. Berryhill

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

August 11, 2017

ANNAMAY HERNANDEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff Annamay Hernandez petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381- 1383f. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including plantar fasciitis, history of carpal tunnel syndrome status post-surgery, osteoarthritis of the hands, obesity, major depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work as a small products assembler, marker, or cashier.

         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 application on June 4, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 5, 2012. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. On August 27, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing and on February 26, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 13, 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. § 1383(c)(3).

         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 that the ALJ erred by: (1) assessing greater mental limitations than those opined by two consulting doctors; (2) failing to classify her migraines as a severe impairment; and (3) discounting her credibility. These arguments are without merit.

         I. The ALJ did not err in assessing greater mental limitations than those opined by Plaintiff's consulting doctors.

         First, Plaintiff avers the ALJ erred by assessing greater mental limitations than those opined by her consulting doctors, and the ALJ's opinion is unclear as to the basis for these limitations. This argument is unavailing.

         Substantial evidence on the record supports the ALJ's RFC finding with regard to Plaintiff's mental limitations. For example, the ALJ gave substantial weight to Plaintiff's consulting physicians Dr. Skolnick and Dr. Frederick, but afforded Plaintiff “the benefit of the doubt to the extent permissible by the objective evidence of record” and “included greater limitations than those suggested” by Plaintiff's consulting physicians. R. at 26-27. Both Dr. Skolnick and Dr. Frederick opined Plaintiff's mental impairments were non-severe. R. at 109; 582-83; 589 (noting Plaintiff “appears to have intact capacity to interact effectively in complex work situations [and] adapt to changes in complex work situations, ” is “able to concentrate, persist, and keep pace on complex tasks, ” and is “able to understand, remember, and carry out complex instructions”). However, after a discussion of the mental status examinations ...


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