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Poppe v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division

July 12, 2017

ANGELA S. POPPE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Angela Poppe seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (DI) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1385. Poppe argues that the administrative law judge (ALJ), Eric S. Basse, erred in determining residual functioning capacity (RFC) because he discredited some of Poppe's statements, he did not give sufficient weight to the RFC opinions of the treating psychiatric nurse practitioner and the consulting examiner, and he did not obtain additional RFC opinions. I recommend affirming the ALJ's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Poppe suffers from migraines and mental health problems, including bipolar affective disorder, anxiety disorder, mood disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. AR 11.[2] She lives alone with her elementary-school-aged daughter. AR 42. She does not work, although she has past employment as a cook helper, telemarketer, and recreational aide. AR 31-32, 286. Her sporadic work history made her eligible for DI benefits for disability established on or before December 31, 2012. AR 9, 236; Doc. 14.

         In January 2013, Poppe started seeing nurse practitioner Amber Edwards (NP Edwards) consistently for psychiatric treatment. AR 312-15. In conjunction with that treatment, she began therapy with social worker Mona Krugger, and later, in September 2014, with mental health counselor Scott Dickinson. AR 318-19, 419. For physical ailments, she sees various practitioners at a clinic, although she primarily sees nurse practitioner Janel Thompson (NP Thompson). AR 560-98.

         In April 2013, Poppe filed concurrent applications for DI and SSI benefits, alleging a disability onset date of January 21, 2012. AR 9, 83-84, 95-96, 203-18. At the Commissioner's request, in August 2013, Poppe had a consultative examination with psychologist Dr. Paul Conditt, who assessed Poppe's mental RFC.[3] AR 86, 98, 526-529. He opined that she had no trouble understanding instructions but moderate to severe impairment carrying out instructions and maintaining concentration and pace. AR 528-29. He also found that she was moderately impaired in her ability to use good judgment and respond to workplace change and severely impaired in her ability to interact appropriately with others. AR 529. He found that she could handle funds relatively well when not manic. Id.

         After receiving Dr. Conditt's opinion, the Commissioner denied Poppe's DI and SSI applications initially and on reconsideration. AR 83-130. As part of those reviews, state agency medical consultants Dr. David Christiansen and Dr. Myrna Tashner evaluated Poppe's mental RFC. AR 89-91, 101-03, 113-16, 125-28. They found that she suffered from no severe or marked limitations but that she was moderately limited in the following areas: maintaining concentration and pace; understanding, remembering, and carrying out detailed instructions; performing activities within a schedule; sustaining an ordinary routine without special supervision; interacting with coworkers and the general public; and responding to changes in the workplace. Id. They found she was not significantly limited in her ability to make simple work-related decisions; respond to criticism; or understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. Id. No state agency medical consultant evaluated Poppe's physical RFC because her migraines were not considered a severe impairment. AR 86-87, 93, 98, 104-05, 111, 117, 123, 129.

         Poppe requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 155. Prior to the hearing, she obtained a reevaluation from Dr. Conditt, who revised his diagnosis[4] and his opinion of Poppe's global assessment of functioning (GAF) score, but not his RFC opinion. AR 525-529. Poppe also submitted as evidence a mental RFC opinion from NP Edwards, which Mr. Dickinson concurred in.[5] AR 403-08. NP Edwards opined that Poppe had no or mild limitations understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple and detailed instructions; maintaining attention and concentration; making simple work decisions; responding to criticism and change; interacting with the public; and getting along with coworkers. AR 406-07. NP Edwards found that Poppe had no severe limitations and that she had marked limitations in only three areas: performing activities within a schedule, sustaining an ordinary routine without special supervision, and working in coordination with others without being distracted by them. AR 406. Overall, she opined that Poppe had no restrictions in her activities of daily living or in maintaining social functioning and that she would only seldom suffer deficiencies of concentration, persistence, or pace. AR 407.

         On January 23, 2015, the ALJ held a video hearing at which Poppe and a vocational expert testified. AR 24-26. The ALJ issued a written opinion following the familiar five-step process outlined in the regulations.[6] AR 9-19. The ALJ determined that Poppe suffered from several severe impairments, including migraines, bipolar affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. AR 11. To evaluate whether Poppe's impairments prevented her from performing her past work or other work, the ALJ determined Poppe's RFC:

[Poppe] has the [RFC] to perform a full range of work . . . with the following nonexertional limitations: limited to simple, routine, tasks; occasional interactions with the public and coworkers but only with small groups of people; essentially limited to performing solitary work tasks at the work site; occasional interaction with supervisors and no production rate pace; also no more than a moderate noise level; no bright lighting (typical office lighting is managed); and avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants (such as odors).

AR 13. The ALJ considered the medical opinions in the record, assigning partial weight to NP Edwards's opinion, partial weight to Dr. Conditt's opinion, and substantial weight to Dr. Tashner's and Dr. Christiansen's opinions. AR 16-17. The ALJ did not fully credit Poppe's statements. AR 14-15. The ALJ found that Poppe could not perform her past work but could do other work and therefore, that she was not disabled. AR 17-19.

         Poppe appealed the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council denied her request for review on May 20, 2016. AR 1-3. The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481 (2016). Poppe 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. 14, 16), and the Honorable Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge of the United States District Court 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).

         Poppe 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 the RFC opinions of NP Edwards and Dr. Conditt, and that some medical evidence does not support the resulting RFC determination. Keeping the substantial-evidence standard in mind, I address each of Poppe's arguments in turn.

         A. Credibility

         Poppe argues that the ALJ improperly discredited some of her subjective complaints. Poppe testified that a few times a week, she gets a migraine so severe that she is unable to function for at least two hours and must lie down. AR 35, 39, 45. She testified that prescription medication that she is supposed to take twice a day, regardless of any symptoms, helps prevent migraines “for the most part” but that she sometimes forgets to take it. AR 33-34, 41. She testified that she suffers from mood swings and that she sometimes feels so depressed that she does not want to get out of bed, to cook, to clean, or to ...

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