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Kern v. Berryhill

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

March 15, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Deborah Ann Kern (“Kern”) petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Kern applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401–434. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Kern was not severely disabled under the Act, and had an residual functional capacity (“RFC”) that allowed her to perform past relevant work.

         After carefully reviewing the record and the parties’ arguments, the Court finds the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The Commissioner’s decision is 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.

         Kern filed her application on October 14, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of July 6, 2012. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial claim level, and Kern appealed the denial to an ALJ. After a hearing, the ALJ denied Kern’s claim on September 4, 2015, finding that she was not disabled under the Act. The Appeals Council denied Kern’s request for review on September 19, 2016. Kern has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Standard of Review

         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).

         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. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011). 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. McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000). The court must “defer heavily” to the Commissioner’s findings and conclusions. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The court may reverse the Commissioner’s decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice, and a decision is not outside this zone simply because the court might have decided the case differently were it the initial finder of fact. Buckner, 646 F.3d at 556.


          Kern argues that the ALJ erred: 1) by improperly evaluating medical opinions in the record and Kern’s subjective complaints, 2) at step four because the ALJ’s RFC analysis did not adequately account for her physical and mental impairments, and 3) at step four by finding that Kern’s RFC allowed her to perform her past relevant work. After reviewing the record and the applicable law, the Court finds these arguments are without merit.

         I. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s evaluation of the medical opinions and Kern’s subjective complaints.

         Kern argues that the ALJ improperly weighed several medical opinions in the record. Where the record contains differing medical opinions, it is the ALJ’s responsibility to resolve conflicts among them. Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 936 (8th Cir. 2008). In weighing a medical opinion, the ALJ should consider the length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability, consistency with the record as a whole, specialization of the treating source, and other factors supporting or contradicting the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). An ALJ must give controlling weight to a treating medical source opinion if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence. Papesh v. Colvin, 786 F.3d 1126, 1132 (8th Cir. 2015). The opinion may be given “limited weight if it provides conclusory statements only, or is inconsistent with the record.” Id. (citation omitted). The ALJ “may discount or even disregard the opinion . . . where other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence, or where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions.” Id. (citation omitted). The mere fact that a physician is a treating physician is not good enough to overcome the better-supported opinion of a reviewing physician. See Ponder v. Colvin, 770 F.3d 1190, 1195 (8th Cir. 2014).

         Kern claims that the ALJ failed to appropriately evaluate the opinion of Dawn G. Bloom, Ph.D., the consultative neuropsychologist. Dr. Bloom’s testing indicated that Kern showed no deterioration of cognitive function, and that her cognitive functioning was age-appropriate. R. 19, 222. The ALJ gave significant weight to Dr. Bloom’s opinions, noting that they were consistent with both other medical testimony of record and with Kern’s own testimony that she never received treatment from a mental health professional. R. at 21, 47, 217-23. See Toland v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 931, 937 (8th Cir. 2014) (‚ÄúState agency medical and psychological consultants are highly qualified ...

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