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Darnell v. Berryhill

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

May 20, 2019

Janice A. DARNELL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          NANETTE K. LAUGHREY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Janice A. Darnell appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons set forth below, the decision is affirmed.

         I. Background

         Darnell, a 56-year-old woman with an associate's degree, claims that on April 20, 2016, she became unable to work at her prior job in accounts receivables due to a combination of impairments including depression, neck injuries, temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), Crohn's, Lupus, arthritis, ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcer disease, lower back injuries and pulmonary nodule. Tr. 114, 227. After her initial claim was denied, Darnell appealed, and an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision on April 17, 2018. Tr. 37-48. Darnell submitted additional medical records after the ALJ's decision and requested review by the Appeals Council, but review was denied. Tr. 1-6 (Appeals Council), 8-28 (Records). Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Darnell initiated this review of the ALJ's decision, which is the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review.

         The ALJ determined that Darnell's degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, and obesity were severe impairments and that she had the following non-severe impairments: thyroid nodule, TMJ, sinusitis, mild obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), fatty liver, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and affective disorder. Tr. 39-40. The ALJ further found that Darnell's allegation of Crohn's disease is not a medically determinable impairment. Tr. 41. Citing normal to mild findings in objective medical exams and imaging, as well as the two medical opinions, the ALJ determined that Darnell had the residual functional capacity (RFC)

to perform light work . . . except no overhead work. She must avoid concentrated exposure to vibration, heat or cold, humidity. She cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She can frequently use her hands bilaterally for gross and fine manipulation, gripping, grasping, handling, and fingering.

Tr. 41-42. The ALJ concluded that Darnell could perform her past relevant work, which was described by the vocational expert (VE) as a composite job consisting of receptionist and accounts receivable clerk. Tr. 47, 87.

         II. Discussion

         Darnell argues that the ALJ's findings regarding her RFC are not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinion evidence and did not account for Darnell's non-severe impairments. According to Darnell, the RFC is also deficient because the ALJ did not specify which limitations are implicated by her obesity or conduct a function-by-function analysis before specifying an exertional level. Finally, Darnell argues that the ALJ erred in classifying and concluding that Darnell could perform her past relevant work.

         A court reverses “the findings of the Commissioner only if they are not supported by substantial evidence or result from an error of law.” Higgens v. Comm'r, 898 F.3d 793, 795 (8th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘less than a preponderance but . . . enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the [ALJ's] conclusion.'” Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). The Court must “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration.” Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks and citations omitted). If the evidence on the record supports two inconsistent positions, and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, then the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed. Id.

         A. Formulation of the RFC

         Darnell argues that substantial evidence on the record as a whole does not support the RFC because 1) there is no medical opinion regarding Darnell's physical limitations from a treating source, 2) the ALJ failed to explain how Darnell's obesity impacts the RFC, 3) the RFC fails to take into account both mental limitations and limitations from Darnell's other non-severe impairments.

         A claimant's “residual functional capacity is the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his or her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In assessing a claimant's RFC, all relevant evidence in the record is considered, id., as are limitations imposed by even non-severe impairments. SSR 96-8p. However, the RFC determination incorporates only limitations “that may affect [the claimant's] ability to perform work-related physical and mental activities.” Id. at * 1. The RFC must be supported by substantial evidence, including “at least some medial evidence.” Myers v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 521, 527 (8th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). “[T]he burden is on the claimant to establish [her] RFC.” Buford v. Colvin, 824 F.3d 793, 796 (8th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted).

         Substantial evidence in the record taken as a whole supports the ALJ's RFC determination. The RFC limits Darnell to light work with no overhead work and only occasional climbing, stooping, kneeling and crawling, which is consistent with Darnell's obesity, degenerative joint disease, and degenerative disc disease. The ALJ noted medical records showing generally “mild objective findings, ” Tr. 44, 395, “full lumbosacral range, ” Tr. 44, 404, and improvement with treatment, Tr. 45, 426-42. Based on Darnell's “mild to moderate” cervical spine findings from an MRI submitted after the hearing, the ALJ added the additional limitation of no overhead work. Tr. 45, 568-69. Darnell's knee pain that is reportedly made worse by going up stairs, coupled with objective exams showing only mild knee crepitus and a full range of motion, is also consistent with the RFC's limitations of only occasional climbing, stooping, kneeling and crawling. Tr. 42, 44, 403-10. Finally, although Darnell reported anxiety or depression related to life events, like her mother's death and her husband's health issues, Tr. 403, 408, the lack of mental limitations in the RFC is consistent with ...


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