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Knight v. Berryhill

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

February 15, 2018

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


          Kelly K.E. Mahoney United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Randall E. Knight seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying his application for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Knight argues that the administrative law judge (ALJ), Julie K. Bruntz, erred by discounting Knight's subjective allegations, affording minimal weight to his therapist's residual functional capacity (RFC) opinion, and failing to order consultative examinations. I recommend that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Knight filed an application for SSI benefits on August 15, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of April 30, 2001. AR 17, 107-08. Subsequently, Knight amended his application to allege a disability onset date of August 15, 2013. AR 181, 254. The parties do not allege any issue with respect to Knight's amended alleged onset date.

         Knight alleged disability due to coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (also called emphysema), high blood pressure, past heart attacks, “anxiety, depression, social phobia, schizoid, [and] avoidant personality.” AR 107-08. Knight's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 17, 107-19, 121-35. In connection with those reviews, state agency consultants Drs. Donald Shumate and Laura Griffith evaluated Knight's physical RFC, [2] and Drs. Dee Wright and Beverly Westra evaluated his mental RFC. AR 112-17, 128-33. Drs. Shumate and Wright issued their RFC opinions in October 2013, and Drs. Griffith and Westra issued their opinions in March 2014. Id.

         The ALJ held a video hearing on September 22, 2015, and issued a written decision denying Knight SSI benefits on October 7, 2015, following the familiar five-step process outlined in the regulations.[3] AR 17-31, 38-39. The ALJ found that Knight's severe impairments included emphysema; coronary artery disease, status post remote myocardial infarction and interventions; COPD; status post hernia surgery; depression; and anxiety. AR 19. The parties do not contend that the ALJ erred in assessing the severity of Knight's impairments.

         To evaluate whether Knight could perform his past or other work, the ALJ determined his RFC:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . such that he could lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can stand and/or walk for six hours of an eight hour workday and sit for six hours of an eight hour workday. His ability to push and pull, including the operation of hand and foot controls, is unlimited within the above weights. He is left handed. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds and never work around heights and dangerous machinery. He can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl and he has no limits on balancing. He should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, fumes, odors, gases, poor ventilation and dust. [Knight] is limited to simple, routine tasks and can have only short-lived superficial contact with the public, coworkers and supervisors.

AR 21. To determine Knight's RFC, the ALJ considered treatment records, the claimant's testimony, function reports, and RFC opinions from the state agency consultants and Knight's therapist. AR 21-29. The ALJ assigned “great weight” to the opinions of the state agency consultants and “minimal weight” to the opinion of Knight's therapist, Tamara Taylor-Hillyer (Therapist Taylor-Hillyer), a licensed social worker. AR 27-29. The ALJ ultimately found that although Knight could not perform his past relevant work, he could work as a counter attendant, production worker, or laundry sorter. AR 30-31. As a result, the ALJ found that Knight was not disabled. AR 31.

         The Appeals Council denied Knight's request for review on November 2, 2016 (AR 1-3), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Knight 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, 17, 19[4]), and the Honorable Leonard T. Strand, Chief 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).

         Knight alleges that the ALJ erred in three ways: (1) improperly discounting Knight's subjective allegations without identifying inconsistencies in the record as a whole; (2) failing to properly evaluate the opinion of Therapist Taylor-Hillyer; and (3) failing to order consultative examinations. Doc. 14.

         A. Knight's ...

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