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Squier v. Saul

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

September 26, 2019

SANDRA L. SQUIER, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.




         This case is before me on a Report & Recommendation (R&R) by the Honorable Kelly K.E. Mahoney, Chief United States Magistrate Judge. Doc. No. 21. Judge Mahoney recommends that I affirm the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying plaintiff Sandra Squier’s application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et. seq. Squier filed timely objections to the R&R. Doc. No. 22. The Commissioner has not responded.


         A. Judicial Review of the Commissioner’s Decision

         The Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed “if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.” Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577 (8th Cir. 2006); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner . . . as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 645 (8th Cir. 2003) (quoting Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 587 (8th Cir. 1998)). The Eighth Circuit explains the standard as “something less than the weight of the evidence and [that] allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of choice within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant or deny benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal.” Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994) (quoting Turley v. Sullivan, 939 F.2d 524, 528 (8th Cir. 1991)).

         To determine whether the Commissioner’s decision meets this standard, the court considers “all of the evidence that was before the ALJ.” Vester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005). The court considers both evidence which supports the Commissioner’s decision and evidence that detracts from it. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010). The court “must search the record for evidence contradicting the [Commissioner’s] decision and give that evidence appropriate weight when determining whether the overall evidence in support is substantial.” Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003). However, the court does not “reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ, ” id. at 555, or “review the factual record de novo.” Roe v. Chater, 92 F.3d 672, 675 (8th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted).

         If, after reviewing the evidence, the court “find[s] it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner’s findings, [the court] must affirm the [Commissioner’s] denial of benefits.” Kluesner, 607 F.3d at 536 (quoting Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008)). This is true even if the court “might have weighed the evidence differently.” Culbertson, 30 F.3d at 939 (citation omitted). The court may not reverse the Commissioner’s decision “merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.” Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984); see also Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005) (“[A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal simply because some evidence may support the opposite conclusion.”).

         B. Review of Report and Recommendation

         A district judge must review a magistrate judge’s R&R under the following standards:

Within fourteen days after being served with a copy, any party may serve and file written objections to such proposed findings and recommendations as provided by rules of court. A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Thus, when a party objects to any portion of an R&R, the district judge must undertake a de novo review of that portion.

         Any portions of an R&R to which no objections have been made must be reviewed under at least a “clearly erroneous” standard. See, e.g., Grinder v. Gammon, 73 F.3d 793, 795 (8th Cir. 1996) (noting that when no objections are filed “[the district court judge] would only have to review the findings of the magistrate judge for clear error”). As the Supreme Court has explained, “[a] finding is ‘clearly erroneous’ when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). However, a district judge may elect to review an R&R under a more-exacting standard even if no objections are filed:

Any party that desires plenary consideration by the Article III judge of any issue need only ask. Moreover, while the statute does not require the judge to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed, it does not preclude further review by the district judge, sua sponte or at the request of a party, under a de novo or any other standard.

Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985).

         III. THE R&R

         Squier applied for DIB on July 1, 2014, alleging major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Factor V Leiden thrombophilia[2] and anxiety. See AR at 72. Her alleged onset date is February 17, 2014, which Judge Mahoney notes “coincides with treatment after a fall at work and the development of blood clots and pulmonary emboli.” Doc. No. 21 at 1 (citing AR at 72, 362, 369–70). Squier’s initial application was denied on August 15, 2014, and, after reconsideration, denied again on December 4, 2014. See AR at 71–103. After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) applied the familiar five-step evaluation and found that Squier suffers from “severe impairments” that “constitute more than slight abnormalities and have more than a minimal effect on the claimant’s ability to perform basic work activities for a continuous period of 12 months or greater.” Id. at 13. However, the ALJ ultimately held that Squier’s impairments do not “meet[] or medically equal the severity” of applicable listed impairments and that, although her RFC renders her incapable of performing past relevant work, Squier is “not disabled” because she “is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. at 14–21. Squier argues that the ALJ erred in reaching this conclusion because (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the combined effects of Squier’s impairments in determining her RFC, including her possible conversion disorder, and (2) the ALJ who decided Squier’s claim was not properly appointed as required by the United States Supreme Court’s recent interpretation of the Appointments Clause in Lucia v. SEC, 138 S.Ct. 2044 (2018). Doc. No. 17 at 2.

         Regarding Squier’s first argument, Judge Mahoney noted that the ALJ not only considered Squier’s impairments in isolation, “but also outlined the medical record and opinions and specifically noted that he considered the combined effects of Squier’s impairments in determining her RFC.” Doc. No. 21 at 4. Further, Judge Mahoney stated that Squier’s reliance on a treatment note[3] from her pulmonologist was misplaced because the pulmonologist expressly stated that “Squier’s impairments individually were not disabling[] and merely explained that a person’s combined impairments may be disabling.” Id. The pulmonologist did not provide a true medical opinion as to whether- or the extent to which-Squier’s impairments in combination caused disabling limitations. See id.

         Judge Mahoney next addressed Squier’s arguments regarding the lack of discussion about Squier’s possible conversion disorder in the ALJ’s decision. Id. at 4–8. After acknowledging that conversion or somatoform disorder is an impairment that has been recognized in disability cases, Judge Mahoney found that the record contained only “limited evidence” that “Squier might suffer from possible conversion disorder.” Id. at 5. Among the limited evidence that exists, Judge Mahoney noted that none came from treating physicians.[4] Id. The fact that Squier referenced “conversion disorder as a ‘potential’ condition” and “did not allege [it] as an impairment in either her application or at the administrative hearing” were also significant to Judge Mahoney. Id. (citing Dunahoo v. Apfel, 241 F.3d 1033, 1039–40 (8th Cir. 2001) (finding claimant’s failed to allege depression in her application was “significant, ” even though evidence of the impairment was later developed)).

         Finally, Judge Mahoney explained that Dr. Ascheman, the medical source Squier primarily relies on for her argument, reported that Squier had dealt with and worked through depression, anxiety and the type of “ruminative thinking” that is often associated with conversion disorder long before her alleged onset date. Id. at 7 (quoting AR at 235).

Dr. Ascheman believed Squier’s “preexisting major depressive disorder” was aggravated by her perceived mistreatment, not her fall, and that her “concerns about recurrent blood clots [were] consistent with [Squier’s] preexisting ruminative thinking, excessive health concerns, and did not substantially factor into the severity of her depression in comparison to other unrelated and recurrent life stressors.” He ultimately concluded that Squier’s ruminative thinking was “within her abilities to regulate were she to seek to do so” and that her “negativistic attitude appears to be somewhat characterological and does not necessitate any specific [medical] restrictions.”

Id. at 6–7 (citations omitted). This, combined with evidence showing Squier’s daily and recreational activities were inconsistent with and “undercut her statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms, ” led Judge Mahoney to conclude that the ALJ did not err in his conclusions regarding the combined effects of Squier’s impairments or her possible conversion disorder. Id. at 7–8.

         With respect to Squier’s Appointments Clause argument, Judge Mahoney noted that “[e]very district court in the Eighth Circuit to address the issue (including the Northern District of Iowa) has found a Social Security claimant’s Appointments Clause challenge raised for the first time on judicial review to be forfeited.” Id. at 11. Because Squier presented no new arguments not already addressed by that precedent, Judge Mahoney recommends rejecting Squier’s Appointments Clause challenge. Id. at 11.

         IV. ...

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