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O'Connell v. Saul

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

September 30, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Angelia Kay O'Connell seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her applications for disability insurance (DI) benefits 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. §§ 1381-1383f. O'Connell argues that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Michael Lee Larner, erred in evaluating O'Connell's subjective complaints and weighing medical opinions, resulting in a flawed determination of O'Connell's residual functional capacity (RFC). She also argues that no medical evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination and that the ALJ erred in relying on testimony from the vocational expert (VE) to conclude O'Connell could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. For the reasons that follow, I affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         O'Connell previously filed for disability in 2011 or 2012 based on carpal tunnel syndrome, but her application was denied. AR 764.[3] O'Connell worked full-time at Burger King from at least 2008 to 2011. See AR 58, 279. She worked as a cashier at different liquor or convenience stores from September 2011 to April 2012, October 2012 to December 2013, and March 2014 to August 2014. AR 59, 279. O'Connell reported in a form to the Social Security Administration in May 2015 that she was laid off from her cashier job in August 2014, and she testified at the hearing in September 2017 that she stopped working because she lived with her boyfriend/fiancé at the time, and he took care of her. AR 59-60, 267, 278. On March 23, 2015, O'Connell's boyfriend stabbed her fifteen times, injuring primarily her left side. AR 61, 418-19. One of the wounds punctured O'Connell's colon, and she underwent surgery to close the wounds. AR 61, 426-27, 749. Following her hospitalization, she lived with her daughter for a few months before getting her own apartment. AR 56. O'Connell reported in June 2015 (during a consultative examination for the Social Security Administration) that she had been hired at a fast food restaurant prior to the stabbing, but she never started working there because of the assault. AR 763.

         O'Connell filed applications for DI and SSI benefits on April 19, 2015, alleging disability beginning March 23, 2015, based on depression, anxiety, and fear. AR 87, 102. Her applications were denied initially in November 2015 and upon reconsideration in February 2016. AR 87-154. In connection with those reviews, state agency medical consultants John May, MD, and Rene Staudacher, DO, evaluated O'Connell's physical RFC (in September 2015 and February 2016, respectively); and state agency psychological consultants Mark Becker, PhD, and Myrna Tashner, EdD, evaluated her mental RFC (in November 2015 and February 2016, respectively). AR 94-99, 129-34.

         At O'Connell's request, the ALJ held an administrative hearing on September 6, 2017. AR 26, 49-51. Both O'Connell and VE Jeff Johnson testified at the hearing. AR 50. On December 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision following the familiar five-step process outlined in the regulations[4] to determine O'Connell was not disabled during the relevant period (March 23, 2015 through December 13, 2017). AR 26-42. The ALJ determined that O'Connell suffered from the following severe impairments: history of multiple stab wounds, obesity, major depressive disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dependent personality disorder, and history of substance abuse. AR 28-29. To determine O'Connell's ability to perform past work (at step four) and other work (at step five), the ALJ determined O'Connell had the following RFC[5]:

• Ability to perform light work.[6]
• Occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds.
• Frequently handle, finger and feel bilaterally.
• Limitation to simple routine tasks without a fast pace or strict quotas.
• Limitation to occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors and no work-related interaction with the public.
• Ability to adapt to simple changes in a work setting.

         AR 30.[7] In making this determination, the ALJ considered O'Connell's testimony and the medical-opinion evidence, among other things. AR 37-40. The ALJ assigned partial weight to the opinion of one-time consultative examiner, Christine Guevara, PhD, (AR 760-64); little weight to the opinion of O'Connell's treating therapist, Carol Ogea, LISW (Therapist Ogea) (AR 326-30, 816, 866); and great weight to the opinions of the state agency medical consultants. AR 36, 38, 40.[8] The ALJ also acknowledged that various providers noted O'Connell's Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score in their treatment records on occasion, but the ALJ assigned these scores only partial weight. AR 40; see also AR 326 (opinion from Therapist Ogea in December 2015 noting that O'Connell's current GAF score was 47 and her highest GAF score in the past year was 70); AR 770 (O'Connell's psychiatrist noted a GAF score of 50 at O'Connell's first appointment in July 2015); AR 915 (emergency room (ER) provider found a GAF score of 35 during O'Connell's hospitalization for suicidal ideation in April 2017); AR 866 (letter from Therapist Ogea dated May 2, 2017, shortly after O'Connell's release from hospitalization, noted a GAF score of 41).

         Based on his determination of O'Connell's RFC and relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that O'Connell could not perform her past work. AR 40- 41. The ALJ found, however, that other work existed in significant numbers in the national economy that O'Connell could perform. AR 41. The ALJ relied on the VE's testimony that a hypothetical individual with O'Connell's age, education, work experience, and RFC could work as a photocopy operator, marker, and scrap separator, and that respectively, 25, 730, 96, 140, and 4, 790 of those positions existed in the national economy. AR 41-42, 84. Thus, the ALJ concluded that O'Connell was not disabled. AR 42.

         On July 19, 2018, the Appeals Council denied O'Connell's request for review (AR 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. O'Connell filed a timely complaint in this court, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision (Docs. 1, 4). See 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(c). The parties briefed the issues (Docs. 13-15) and consented to the jurisdiction of a United States magistrate judge (Doc. 8).


         A court must affirm the Commissioner'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 [Commissioner's] findings, [the court] must affirm the decision.” Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992).

         O'Connell argues the ALJ erred by failing to include in the RFC determination several limitations based on her testimony and reports to providers. O'Connell also argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinions and that no medical evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination. Finally, O'Connell argues the ALJ failed to show that O'Connell could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. I will address each of these arguments in turn.

         A. Subjective Complaints

         When evaluating the credibility of a claimant's subjective complaints-including pain or nervousness-the ALJ must consider the factors set forth in Polaski v. Heckler: “(1) the claimant's daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency and intensity of the pain; (3) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; (4) precipitating and aggravating factors; and (5) functional restrictions.” Black v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 383, 386 (8th Cir. 1998); accord Polaski, 739 F.2d 1320, 1321-22 (8th Cir. 1984), vacated, 476 U.S. 1167 (1986), reinstated, [9] 804 F.2d 456 (8th Cir. 1986). “Other relevant factors include the claimant's relevant work history and the absence of objective medical evidence to support the complaints.” Black, 143 F.3d at 386. The ALJ may discount a claimant's subjective complaints that are inconsistent with the objective medical evidence, Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 581 (8th Cir. 2002); or “inconsistencies in the record as a whole, ” Brockman v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1344, 1346 (8th Cir. 1993). Courts must “defer to an ALJ's credibility finding as long as the ‘ALJ explicitly [discounts] a claimant's testimony and gives a good reason for doing so.'” Schultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 962 (8th Cir. 2001)).

         O'Connell testified that she suffers constant abdominal pain as a result of the stabbing. AR 62-63. She said that she cannot stand for longer than thirty minutes without her side starting to hurt and that she can lift only “five to ten pounds if [she's] lucky.” AR 62, 76. She said she cannot reach above her head with her left arm, and pulling is strenuous on the left side. AR 64. She testified that bending is hard and that she cannot squat. AR 65. She also testified that she feels depressed every day. AR 67. She testified that she is afraid to leave her house; that she does not go outside very often, especially at night; and that it would be difficult for her to work because having to leave her house “would be a big thing.” AR 67, 78. She testified that she suffers from panic attacks a few times a week. AR 70-71. She testified that she sometimes has difficulty handling criticism and following instructions and that her “concentration is horrible.” AR 75-76.

         The ALJ did not fully credit O'Connell's subjective complaints. The ALJ first found that O'Connell's reported limitations were inconsistent with the medical evidence. AR 32. The ALJ summarized O'Connell's treatment records. AR 32-38. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that O'Connell's allegations are ...

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