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Shelton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

June 29, 2017

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


          Kelly K.E. Mahoney United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Lisa Shelton seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her application for supplemental security income (SSI) under title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1385. Shelton argues that the administrative law judge (ALJ), Eric S. Basse, erred in determining residual functioning capacity (RFC) because he discredited the statements of Shelton and others, he did not give sufficient weight to the medical opinions, and he required objective evidence of Shelton's limitations. I recommend affirming the ALJ's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Shelton suffers from a combination of physical and mental impairments, including problems with her back, knees, feet, and neck; obesity; anxiety; and depression. AR 12, 15-18, 261.[2] Shelton applied for SSI disability benefits on October 3, 2014, a little more than a week after receiving notice that the Appeals Council would not be reviewing a previous denial of benefits. AR 10, 95.

         The Commissioner denied Shelton's initial application for SSI benefits in February 2015. AR 99-117. In connection with that determination, Shelton had a one-time consulting examination with Dr. Mark Taylor, who then evaluated her physical RFC.[3]AR 101-02, 105, 681-686. State agency medical consultants Dr. Matthew Byrnes and Dr. Russell Lark also assessed Shelton's physical and mental RFC, respectively, after reviewing treatment notes, Dr. Taylor's opinion, and Shelton's self-reported abilities and limitations. AR 101-104, 107-114. Dr. Lark also conducted a telephone interview with Shelton. AR 113.

         Shelton's right knee worsened after the Commissioner's initial denial, and Shelton and her stepdaughter (whom she lives with) submitted updated function reports in April 2015. AR 129, 317-32, 335-42. A month later, in May 2015, Shelton had knee-replacement surgery on her right knee. AR 884-87. As part of the Commissioner's denial on reconsideration, issued in July 2015, state agency medical consultant Dr. Marlene Gernes reviewed the updated evidence and evaluated Shelton's physical RFC, determining that it had worsened since the Commissioner's initial denial. AR 128-133, 138-39. Dr. Myrna Tashner also evaluated Shelton's mental RFC and affirmed the initial assessment. AR 133-136.

         Shelton requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 165-66. After a video hearing on April 6, 2016, at which Shelton and a vocational expert testified, the ALJ issued a written opinion following the familiar five-step process outlined in the regulations[4] to determine whether Shelton was disabled. AR 10-23, 30-31. The ALJ found that Shelton suffers from the following severe impairments: “degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees, status-post total right knee replacement, degenerative disc disease, obesity, history of interstitial lung disease, history of plantar fasciitis, major depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder.” AR 12. To evaluate whether Shelton's impairments prevented her from performing her past work or other work, the ALJ determined Shelton's RFC, considering several medical opinions and assigning weight to each one. AR 14-22.

         The ALJ gave little weight to the mental RFC opinions of Shelton's treating psychiatric nurse practitioner, Nancy Howe (NP Howe), and her treating psychologist, Dr. Luke Hansen. AR 18, 934-35, 1053-54. Dr. Hansen and NP Howe filled out mental RFC forms that were a little more than a page long. AR 934-35, 1053-54. They indicated that they had been treating Shelton since September 24, 2015, for recurrent major depression. AR 934, 1053. Dr. Hansen indicated that Shelton also suffered from anxiety. AR 1053. Dr. Hansen found that Shelton could perform simple tasks on a sustained basis; NP Howe found that Shelton's ability would depend on her pain and mood stability. AR 934, 1053. Dr. Hansen opined that Shelton's ability to pay attention, sustain pace, and maintain attendance at work were “[l]imited based on mood [and] pain, ” while NP Howe found it “[u]npredictable but sustained.” Id. Both Dr. Hansen and NP Howe found that Shelton's ability to work and interact with other people would depend on her pain and mood. Id. Dr. Hansen similarly found that Shelton's ability to accept changes in the workplace would depend on her mood and pain; NP Howe found she would have no difficulties dealing with change. Id. Both NP Howe and Dr. Hansen found Shelton would miss more than four days of work a month. AR 935, 1054.

         The ALJ also gave little weight to the physical RFC assessment of Dr. Michael Brooks, Shelton's treating rheumatologist who evaluated her RFC in March 2016. AR 18, 39, 1028-30. Like Dr. Hansen and NP Howe, Dr. Brooks filled out a short RFC form. AR 1028-30. He opined that Shelton could carry twenty pounds multiple times throughout the day for a total of two and a half hours. AR 1028. In an eight-hour day, he found that she could stand for two hours in thirty-minute increments and that she could sit for six hours in two-hour increments. Id. He also found that she could not kneel, crawl, squat, or engage in repetitive overhead use of her arms. Id. Finally, Dr. Brooks found that Shelton would miss about four days of work a month. AR 1029.

         The ALJ also assigned little weight to the physical RFC opinion of Dr. Taylor, the consulting examiner. AR 17-18, 680-88. Dr. Taylor opined that Shelton would need to alternate between sitting, standing, and walking as needed for comfort. AR 685. He restricted her lifting to between ten and twenty pounds, depending on the level of lifting (i.e., knee, waist, or chest level). AR 684-85. He also opined that she could rarely kneel, crawl, stoop, bend, or climb stairs, and that she could never climb ladders. AR 685. Dr. Taylor also recommended rare exposure to fumes and extreme temperatures. Id.

         The ALJ gave partial weight to the RFC opinions of the state agency medical consultants. AR 20-21. Dr. Lark and Dr. Tashner found that Shelton faced only mild and moderate limitations because of her depression and anxiety. AR 105-06, 111-13, 127, 134-35. They found that she faced moderate limitations in her ability to maintain attention for extended periods; to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; to complete a normal workday and work week without interruptions from her mental impairments; to respond to changes in the workplace; to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number of rest periods; and to interact appropriately with coworkers and the general public. AR 111-13, 134-35. They found that she faced no significant limitations in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; to maintain regular attendance; to work in coordination or proximity to others without being distracted by them; to make simple work-related decisions; and to accept criticism from supervisors. Id.

         State agency medical consultants Dr. Byrnes and Dr. Gernes found that Shelton could frequently lift ten pounds and occasionally lift twenty pounds. AR 108, 129. They found that she could occasionally stoop, climb stairs, and crouch, but never crawl, climb ladders, or kneel. AR 108, 129-30. They recommended that she avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures and fumes. AR 109, 130. They found that she could sit for six hours in an eight-hour day with normal breaks. AR 108, 129. Dr. Byrnes found that she could stand for six hours, but he made this assessment before Shelton's right-knee surgery and before degenerative changes in Shelton's left knee. AR 108, 129. Dr. Gernes found that Shelton could stand for four hours in an eight-hour day. AR 129. Considering these medical opinions, as well as treatment notes, Shelton's testimony, and function reports, the ALJ determined Shelton's RFC as follows:

[Shelton] has the residual functional capacity to perform a range of sedentary to light work . . . such that she could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She could stand and walk for four hours in an eight-hour workday, in increments. She could sit at least six hours in an eight-hour workday. She could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, never kneel, and never crawl. She could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, as well as occasionally balance, stoop, and crouch. She could not have concentrated exposure to extremes of heat, cold, and humidity, as well as no concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants. She would require a cane for ambulation. She would be limited to simple, routine tasks, with short, simple instructions. She could perform simple work-related decisions with occasional workplace changes. She could have occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.

AR 14-21. The ALJ did not fully credit Shelton's statements, nor the third-party statements submitted by Shelton's mother-in-law and stepdaughter. AR 16, 19-21, 321-28, 335-42, 374.

         Based on his assessment of Shelton's RFC, the ALJ found that jobs existed that Shelton could perform and that she was not disabled. AR 22-23. The Appeals Council denied Shelton's request for review on June 10, 2016 (AR 1-3), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481 (2016).

         Shelton filed a timely complaint in this court, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 3). See 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(c). The parties briefed the issues (Docs. 12-14), and the Honorable Linda R. Reade, United States District Judge for the Northern District of Iowa, referred this case to me for a Report and Recommendation.


         A court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it “is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept it as adequate to support a decision.” Kirby, 500 F.3d at 707. The court “do[es] not reweigh the evidence or review the factual record de novo.” Naber v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 186, 188 (8th Cir. 1994). If, after reviewing the evidence, “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 decision.” Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992).

         Shelton challenges only the ALJ's RFC determination, arguing that the ALJ erred in evaluating her credibility, that the ALJ should have given more weight to third-party statements and the medical opinions, and that some medical evidence does not support the resulting RFC determination. Keeping the substantial-evidence standard in mind, I address each of Shelton's arguments in turn.

         A. The ...

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