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Skaggs v. Berryhill

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

November 21, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Amanda Skaggs' (Skaggs) application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income (SSI) under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416, 423 et seq. Skaggs alleged disability due to traumatic brain injury. (Tr. 161.) The parties have consented to the exercise of authority by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Doc. 10.] For the reasons set forth below, the Court will reverse and remand the Commissioner's final decision.

         I. Issues for Review

         Skaggs presents two issues for review. First, she asserts that the administrative law judge's (ALJ) residual functional capacity (RFC) determination does not adequately account for her migraine headaches and fails to provide a narrative link between the medical evidence and the ultimate conclusion. Second, she contends that the ALJ's credibility analysis is not supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and should be affirmed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act defines disability as an “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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Social Security Administration uses a five-step analysis to determine whether a claimant seeking disability benefits is in fact disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1), 416.920(a)(1). First, the claimant must not be engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). Second, the claimant must establish that he or she has an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his or her ability to perform basic work activities and meets the durational requirements of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Third, the claimant must establish that his or her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the appendix to the applicable regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment, the SSA determines the claimant's RFC to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         Fourth, the claimant must establish that the impairment prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant meets this burden, the analysis proceeds to step five. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Singh v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 448, 451 (8th Cir. 2000). If the claimant satisfies all of the criteria under the five-step evaluation, the ALJ will find the claimant to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         The standard of review is narrow. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). This Court reviews decisions of the ALJ to determine whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find adequate support for the ALJ's decision. Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir. 1994). The court determines whether evidence is substantial by considering evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it. Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 906 (8th Cir. 2006). The Court may not reverse just because substantial evidence exists that would support a contrary outcome or because the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. If, after reviewing the record as a whole, the Court finds it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's finding, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed. Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 736 (8th Cir. 2004). To determine whether the ALJ's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court is required to review the administrative record as a whole to consider:

(1) The findings of credibility made by the ALJ;
(2) The education, background, work history, and age of the claimant;
(3) The medical evidence given by the claimant's treating physician;
(4) The subjective complaints of pain and description of the claimant's physical activity and impairment;
(5) The corroboration by third parties of the claimant's physical impairment;
(6) The testimony of vocational experts based upon prior hypothetical questions which fairly set forth the claimant's physical impairment; and
(7) The testimony of consulting physicians.

Brand v. Sec'y of Dept. of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 623 F.2d 523, 527 (8th Cir. 1980).

         III. Discussion

         A. Administrative Record

         On September 28, 2005, Skaggs experienced a head injury that rendered her unconscious and required hospitalization for two days. (Tr. 236, 374.) She incurred a left knee injury in April 2006. (Tr. 376-79.) Dr. David Peeples performed an independent medical evaluation for workers' compensation purposes on January 18, 2010. (Tr. 236-39.) Dr. Peeples opined that Skaggs would need ongoing treatment with medication for her headaches. (Tr. 238.) He opined that she could work without restriction, because her headache symptoms were subjective and did not limit her occupational and personal activities. (Tr. 238-39.) He found that her neurological examination was normal. (Tr. 239.) Skaggs indicated in her disability report that she stopped working on May 25, 2009, because her employer found someone to volunteer to perform her job duties. (Tr. 161.) At her August 2014 administrative hearing, she testified that she stopped working, because the church that she worked for stopped holding meetings on the night that she prepared food for the church. (Tr. 33-34.) Her disability report indicates that her conditions became severe enough to keep her from working on January 1, 2011. (Tr. 161.)

         The medical evidence in the record includes treatment from Dr. Mohammed Choudhary between 2011 and 2012 for treatment of headaches, which Skaggs alleged occurred every day. During this time, Skaggs complained of headaches, blurred vision, pressure behind her eyes, nausea, memory loss, concentration problems, and balance problems without falling. (Tr. 264-92, 446-48, 450, 493-526.) Dr. Choudhary also performed spinal taps to relieve the headaches. (Tr. 264-69, 446-49, 493-526.) Skaggs reported relief from the headaches for a short time after the spinal taps. Dr. Salim Rahman examined Skaggs and ordered an MRI. (Tr. 270-73.) The MRI, taken on January 12, 2012, showed no acute intracranial abnormality, mild hypoplasia[2] in the left temporal lobe, and mild cerebellar tonsillar ectopia. (Tr. 274-75.) Dr. Rahman did not recommend surgical intervention, because there was no evidence of Chiari I malformation[3], nor of intracranial trauma. (Tr. 276-77.) Dr. Ifeanyi Orizu diagnosed Skaggs with myopia (near-sightedness), punctuate keratitis, and crystalline deposits in vitreous on January 25, 2012. (Tr. 368.) He did not find retinal detachment or a retinal break. (Tr. 368.)

         Dr. Peeples performed a second independent medical evaluation on July 25, 2012. (Tr. 240-42.) He noted that Skaggs' post-concussive headaches continued and she had developed increased headaches, visual symptoms, and elevated CSF pressure ...

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