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Feezell v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

August 14, 2019




         Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of Defendant Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) denial of disability benefits as rendered in a decision by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). For the reasons below, the decision of the ALJ is AFFIRMED.

         Standard of Review

         The Court's review of the ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining if the decision “complies with the relevant legal requirements and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Ford v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 979, 981 (8th Cir. 2008)). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind would find adequate to support the [ALJ's] conclusion.'” Grable v. Colvin, 770 F.3d 1196, 1201 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Davis v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 962, 966 (8th Cir. 2001)). In determining whether existing evidence is substantial, the Court takes into account “evidence that detracts from the [ALJ's] decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). “If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, [the Court] may not reverse even if substantial evidence would support the opposite outcome or [the Court] would have decided differently.” Smith v. Colvin, 756 F.3d 621, 625 (8th Cir. 2014) (citing Davis v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 962, 966 (8th Cir. 2001)). The Court does not “re-weigh the evidence presented to the ALJ.” Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003)). The Court must “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the [ALJ].” Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).


         By way of overview, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of a heart condition, with a history of heart attack and placement of three stents; reactive airway disease; and obesity. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff has non-severe impairments of depression and anxiety, among other things. However, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, whether considered alone or in combination, meet or medically equals the criteria of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (“Listing”). Additionally, the ALJ found that despite his impairments, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work[1] with various postural and environmental limitations. Finally, the ALJ found that although Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work as a foundry worker, he can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as the jobs of bakery line worker and garment sorter. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes three arguments: (1) that the ALJ erred by determining that Plaintiff's anxiety and depression were non-severe; (2) that the RFC is not supported by medical evidence; and (3) that the ALJ did not properly analyze Plaintiff's statements about his symptoms.

         I. Non-Severity

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ's non-severity determination was not supported by substantial evidence because Plaintiff was consistently diagnosed and prescribed medication for depression and anxiety, had low scores on the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scale, and claimed he had at least six or seven panic attacks a month lasting up to six hours. “An impairment is not severe if it amounts only to a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had only minimal limits in his abilities to (1) understand, remember, or apply information; (2) interact with others; (3) concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and (4) adapt or manage himself. (Tr. 15-16); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3).

         These findings were supported by substantial evidence. The record suggests that Plaintiff's comprehension, memory, and judgment were intact (Tr. 290-306, 401-02, 437-42, 450); that he cooperated at appointments and interacted well with others (Tr. 205-06, 218-19, 290-306, 415-18, 450); that he handled essentially all of his own personal care (Tr. 38-40, 54, 58-59, 201-06, 215-19); that he was not being treated by a mental health provider (Tr. 401-02); and that his anxiety and sleeplessness was controlled with medication (Tr. 290-306, 415-18, 450). See Lawson v. Colvin, 807 F.3d 962, 965 (8th Cir. 2015) (“If an impairment can be controlled by treatment or medication, it cannot be considered disabling.”) (quotation marks and citation omitted); Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 974 (8th Cir. 2010) (“[A]n ALJ may afford greater weight to medical evidence and testimony than to GAF scores when the evidence requires it.”) (quotation marks and citation omitted); Kirby, 500 F.3d at 709 (emphasizing the lack of formal mental health treatment in the severity analysis and stating that “[i]t is the function of the ALJ to weigh conflicting evidence”).

         Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to include the “mild” limitation he found at the severity step in the RFC analysis. However, the ALJ stated that he considered the effects of Plaintiff's non-severe impairments when calculating the RFC. (Tr. 15-16.) He was not required to explicitly reference the “mild” limitation in the RFC. See, e.g., Johnson v. Berryhill, No. 4:17-CV-0416-DGK-SSA, 2018 WL 2336297, at *2 (W.D. Mo. May 23, 2018) (“A mild restriction . . . do[es] not require a corresponding RFC limitation as Plaintiff suggests.”).

         II. Substantial Evidence to Support the RFC

         Plaintiff next argues that there is no medical evidence in the record supporting the RFC, citing Nevland v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 853 (8th Cir. 2008). Nevland is distinguishable from this case because there is substantial medical evidence in Plaintiff's treatment records that demonstrates his functional capabilities. An RFC must be supported by some medical evidence, but a specific medical opinion is not required; treatment records may be sufficient. Hensley v. Colvin, 829 F.3d 926, 932 (8th Cir. 2016). A “light work” RFC can be supported by mild or unremarkable objective medical findings and other medical evidence in the record. Steed v. Astrue, 524 F.3d 872, 875-76 (8th Cir. 2008).

         Here, the record provides, and the ALJ referenced, numerous test results that were mild and unremarkable. Plaintiff's cardiologist opined that he could return to work two weeks after his heart surgery with a temporary 20-pound weight restriction-which is consistent with doing “light work.” (Tr. 21, 442-46.) 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b). Plaintiff's follow-up cardiovascular exams were also normal and documented a “near full recovery.” (E.g., Tr. 20, 261-63, 327, 362, 409, 417, 422.) Furthermore, various physical exams showed that Plaintiff had a full range of motion, normal motor functioning, and intact sensation. (Tr. 20-21, 263, 311, 327.) Although the medical records documented some signs of fatigue and diminished breathing (Tr. 310-11, 417, 421-22, 429, 452), they also showed that Plaintiff ...

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