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Nguyen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Northern Division

May 1, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Office of General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Defendants.


          CHARLES B. KORNMANN United States District Judge


         Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the final decision denying plaintiffs claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This is plaintiffs third claim for disability benefits, and the second time that she has requested judicial review of the denial of her disability benefits. This Court upholds the Commissioner's decision to deny plaintiff benefits as the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.

         Plaintiff, born in 1966, arrived in Aberdeen, South Dakota, from Vietnam in 1992. She worked in and around Aberdeen from 1992 through 1998 and completed degrees from Northern State University and the University of Maryland (online). Plaintiff later pursued a PhD program in Florida at Nova Southeastern University and worked at the university from 2001 to 2002. Plaintiff was dismissed from the PhD program for what she states were false claims of plagiarism. Plaintiff moved to California in 2005 but states that she returned to Aberdeen after her work hours were reduced, although the record does not indicate that plaintiff worked in California. This Court notes that during plaintiffs work history, she has never earned more than $ 10, 000 per year, and typically significantly less.

         Plaintiff previously filed for disability benefits in 2004 and 2008. Both claims were denied, and plaintiff ultimately requested judicial review of the denial of her 2008 claim. This Court upheld the denial of plaintiff's benefits in that claim. Nguyen v. Colvin, 2014 WL1053033 (D.S.D. 2014). Plaintiff filed the current claim for SSI on March 26, 2014 for disability stemming from "severe osteoarthritis." Plaintiffs claim was denied by the Social Security Administration on September 5, 2014 and again, upon reconsideration, on December 5, 2014, on the following basis:

There is no indication of nerve or muscle damage which would result in severe weakness or loss of function. There is no indication of joint damage which would result in severe weakness or loss of function. Exam and medical evidence revealed normal range of motion of joints. XRays [sic] of knees, hips and lumbar spine did not reveal a severe impairment. The medical evidence reviewed does not reveal that your condition causes marked and severe functional limitations that prevents [sic] you from doing all types of work. The reports do not show any other condition that would severely limit the ability to work.

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and ALJ Denzel Busick reaffirmed the denial of plaintiff s claim for benefits on May 3, 2016. Plaintiff then filed a request for review by the Appeals Council on June 27, 2016, which adopted the ALJ's denial of plaintiff s application for benefits on June 23, 2017. Plaintiff has thus exhausted administrative review of her claim.

         On August 18, 2017, plaintiff filed the current request for judicial review before this Court, claiming that (1) the ALJ's decision contains errors of law, because the ALJ refused to compel plaintiffs interrogatories of her physicians, and that (2) the ALJ's decision is not based upon substantial evidence because it relies upon the "malicious report" of plaintiff s treating physician, Dr. Steven Redmond, which plaintiff states is based on "Dr. Redmond's total lie of no degenerative disease at all." Plaintiff supports her disagreement with the Social Security Administration's disability determination largely via self-diagnosis of ailments that are not corroborated by medical opinion contained in the record: including that plaintiff has macular degeneration, that her diagnosis of a vestibular disorder is the result of brain damage, and that the impairment to her spine, which plaintiff characterizes as spinal arachnoiditis, requires surgery.

         In response to plaintiffs appeal for judicial review, defendants request that the Court uphold the Commissioner's disability determination, stating that (1) substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, (2) the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of plaintiff s treating physician, and (3) substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination of plaintiffs credibility. Noting both the similarity of the issues in the current request for review to those raised in plaintiffs previous claim before this Court and that the new evidence submitted by plaintiff continues to fail to support her claims, this Court upholds the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiffs claim for disability benefits.


          I. Standard of Review

         A court reviewing a disability benefits determination must "neither consider a claim de novo, nor abdicate is function to carefully analyze the entire record." Mittlestedt v. Apfel. 204 F.3d 847, 851 (8th Cir. 2000). Rather, the reviewing court must consider both evidence that detracts froni the Commissioner's decision along with evidence that supports it. Minor v. Astrue, 574 F.3d 625, 627 (8th Cir. 2009). Such review "is more than a search of the record for evidence supporting the [Commissioner's] findings" and "requires a scrutinizing analysis, not merely a 'rubber stamp' of the [Commissioner's] action." Scott ex rel. Scott v. Astrue. 529 F.3d 818, 821 (8th Cir. 2008) (internal citations omitted). A Commissioner's findings must be upheld so long as they are ' supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole..42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Choate v, Bamhart, 457 F.3d 865, 869 (8th Cir. 2006); Howard v. Massanari. 255 F.3d 577, 580 (8th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is that which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion." Klug v. Weinberger. 514 F.2d 423, 425 (8th Cir. 1975) (internal citations omitted), The reviewing court may not reverse a Commissioner's decision "merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision." Reed v. Bamhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005). Instead, "[i]f, after reviewing the record, the court find 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 [ALJ's] decision." Pcarsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d .1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001).

         The reviewing court must also review the ALJ's decision to determine if the ALJ committed an error of law or applied an erroneous legal standard. Smith v. Sullivan, 982 F.2d 308, 311 (8th Cir. 1992); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Deference is given to the Commissioner's construction of the Social Security Act. Smith v. Sullivan, 982 F.2d at 311. However, the Commissioner's conclusions of law are persuasive, not binding, on the reviewing court. Id.; see also Miller v. Colvin, 114 F.Supp.3d 741. 760 (D.S.D. 2015).

         II. The Five Step Procedure for Disability Determination

         Social Security law establishes a mandatory five step procedure for determining whether an applicant is disabled and entitled to SSI benefits under Title XVI. Smith v. Shalala, 987 F.2d 1371, 1373 (8th Cir. 1993); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The five-step sequential evaluation process may be summarized as follows:

(1) whether the claimant is presently engaged in a "substantial gainful activity"; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment-one that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience); (4) whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform . . . past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to ...

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