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Knight v. Berryhill

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

January 10, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Debra Knight seeks review of the decision of the Social Security Commissioner, Nancy Berryhill, denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act.[2] Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In October 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging she was disabled as of March 31, 2007, her alleged onset date of disability and her date last insured for purposes of Disability Insurance Benefits.[3] Plaintiff, born on January 3, 1956, claimed she was disabled as a result of: fibromyalgia; “severe widespread muscle pain, tenderness, & weakness”; chronic fatigue syndrome; depression, malaise, and anxiety; significant short-term memory loss; difficulty concentrating and focusing; osteoarthritis; “residuals of past back injury”; neck pain and immobility; and sleep apnea. (Tr. 195). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claims, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 29).

         An ALJ conducted a hearing in February 2012 and, on May 25, 2012, the ALJ entered a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits.[4] (Tr. 10-25, 639-75). After the SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, she appealed to the United States District Court. (Tr. 614-33). The court found that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work because the ALJ: (1) improperly discounted the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician; and (2) failed to support the RFC determination with citation to any medical evidence. Knight v. Colvin, Case No. 4:13-CV-1191 CEJ, 2014 WL 4352061, at *10 (E.D.Mo. Sept. 2, 2014). The district court reversed the Commissioner's denial of benefits and remanded for further proceedings with directions to “consider whether to obtain the opinion of a consultative examiner to determine whether plaintiff was able to maintain substantial gainful employment on March 31, 2007.” Id.

         Pursuant to the district court's remand order, the SSA Appeals Council vacated the Commissioner's final decision and remanded the case to the ALJ, who conducted a second hearing on January 29, 2015. (Tr. 537-84, 636). At the hearing, the ALJ heard the testimony of: medical expert, Dr. Anne Winkler, M.D., Ph.D., a specialist in internal medicine and rheumatology; Plaintiff; and a vocational expert. (Tr. 537-84). In a decision dated July 10, 2015, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920[5] and again determined that Plaintiff “was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act on March 31, 2007, the claimant's alleged onset date of disability and her date last insured[.]” (Tr. 462).

         The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had: the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, and mild osteoarthritis of the right knee; and the non-severe impairments of mild mitral insufficiency and irritable bowel syndrome. (Tr. 464). After reviewing the medical opinion evidence, medical records, and testimony and finding that Plaintiff was “not entirely credible, ” the ALJ determined that, through March 31, 2007, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work:

except the claimant should never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds but was able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She was able to frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant should have avoided concentrated exposure to cold, wetness and humidity, and all exposure to unprotected heights.

(Tr. 465). The ALJ further determined that, through March 31, 2007, Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work but there existed a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 470).

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on January 15, 2016. (Tr. 454-57). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion.'” Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1323 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Boerst v. Shalala, 2 F.3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). However, a court “do[es] not reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ and [it] defer[s] to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reason and substantial evidence.” Renstrue v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)).

         “If, after reviewing the record, the court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision.” Partee v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005)). The Eighth Circuit has repeatedly held that a court should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions” of the Social Security Administration. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff claims that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's determination that she was not disabled on March 31, 2007, Plaintiff's alleged onset date of disability and date last insured.[6] More specifically, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in discrediting the opinion of her treating physician and assigning great weight to that of a consulting physician. (ECF No. 9). Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the vocational expert's testimony at step five of the sequential evaluation process did not constitute substantial evidence because it was based upon an incorrect RFC. (Id.). Defendant counters that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC assessment because: (1) the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence; (2) the ALJ's hypothetical question accurately reflected Plaintiff's limitations; and (3) the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's credibility. (ECF No. 17).

         A. Medical ...

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