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Ingram v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

March 19, 2015

TERRI SUE INGRAM, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

JOHN M. GERRARD, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the denial, initially and upon reconsideration, of plaintiff Terri Sue Ingram's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. The Court has considered the parties' filings and the administrative record. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Ingram applied for disability insurance benefits on January 25, 2011. T58, 106.[1] Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. T106-110. Ingram appealed and requested a hearing from an administrative law judge (ALJ). T133-34. The ALJ held a hearing on September 19, 2012. T55-105. In a decision dated September 26, 2012, the ALJ found that Ingram was not disabled as defined under 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) or 423(d), and therefore not entitled to benefits. T55-74.

Disability, for purposes of the Social Security Act, is defined as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) & 423(d).

To determine whether a claimant is entitled to disability benefits, the ALJ performs a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, the claimant has the burden to establish that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. Cuthrell v. Astrue, 702 F.3d 1114, 1116 (8th Cir. 2013). If the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity, she will be found not to be disabled; otherwise, at step two, she has the burden to prove she has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. Id.

At step three, if the claimant shows that her impairment meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations, she is automatically found disabled and is entitled to benefits. Id. Otherwise, the analysis proceeds to step four, but first, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is used at steps four and five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). A claimant's RFC is what she can do despite the limitations caused by any mental or physical impairments. Toland v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 931, 935 (8th Cir. 2014). At step four, the claimant has the burden to prove she lacks the RFC to perform her past relevant work. Cuthrell, 702 F.3d at 1116. If the claimant can still do her past relevant work, she will be found not to be disabled; otherwise, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, that there are other jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id .; Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010).

Ingram alleged disability primarily as a result of fibromyalgia. T60-61, 77, 106, 109. She alleged a disability onset date of March 1, 2010. T58, 175. At that time, Ingram was 35 years old. T109. The ALJ found that, based on her earnings record, Ingram could remain insured through September 30, 2015. T58. Thus, the question before the ALJ was whether Ingram had demonstrated that she was disabled for some period of not less than 12 months from between March 1, 2010 to September 30, 2015.

At step one, the ALJ found that Ingram had not engaged in substantial gainful activity following her alleged onset date. Next, at step two, the ALJ found that Ingram's fibromyalgia was a severe impairment.[2] At step three, the ALJ found that Ingram had no impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. T60-62. The ALJ then determined that Ingram had the RFC to perform light work, with the following additional limitations: she was limited to occasionally lifting or carrying 20 pounds and frequently lifting or carrying 10 pounds; she could stand, sit, or walk for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday; she could occasionally perform postural activities such as climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; and she should not work on ladders or with dangerous hazards or equipment. T62.

At step four, the ALJ found, based upon the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), that Ingram retained the ability to perform her past relevant work as a day care worker, clinical therapist, secretary, and social services aide. T67, 99. Alternatively, the ALJ went on to find at step five that Ingram was not disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the "Grids"), see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2. T67. And as a further alternative at step five, the ALJ found, based on the VE's testimony, that Ingram could perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. T67-68, 100-101. Specifically, the VE testified and the ALJ found that Ingram could perform the full range of unskilled light and sedentary work. T67-68, 100-101. So, the ALJ found that Ingram was not disabled. T68.

On December 12, 2013, after receiving additional evidence (T6-20, 25-41, 45-54), the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied Ingram's request for review. T1-4. Ingram's complaint (filing 1) seeks review of the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court reviews a denial of benefits by the Commissioner to determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Bernard v. Colvin, 774 F.3d 482, 486 (8th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Id. The Court must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the ALJ's decision, and will not reverse an administrative decision simply because some evidence may support the opposite conclusion. Id .; Whitman v. Colvin, 762 F.3d 701, 706 (8th Cir. 2014). If, after reviewing the record, the Court finds 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. Bernard, 774 F.3d at 486.

III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Ingram has alleged disability as a result of various symptoms associated with her fibromyalgia. Briefly stated, Ingram claims that she experiences fatigue, pain, and difficulty concentrating. See, e.g., T89-90, 247-48. She also alleges that she experiences pain if she sits, stands, or walks for any significant period of time, and as a result she must frequently change positions or rest. See, e.g., T89, 251. Specifically, Ingram claimed that she could walk for only 10 minutes and stand for only 15 minutes before needing to sit or lie down, and could only sit for 15 to 20 minutes before needing to stand up or lie down. T251.

At the time of her alleged onset date of March 1, 2010, Ingram was working full-time as a mental health therapist. T88, 185, 203. She had obtained a master's degree in counseling in 2009. T85. Before that Ingram worked in various positions, including full-time positions as a daycare provider and as a secretary. T85-88, 98, 203. In March 2010, Ingram was married, with two children, who were approximately 8 and 10 years old. T84. Later in 2010, she and her husband separated (and eventually divorced), and in October 2010 Ingram and her children began residing with Ingram's parents. Ingram was thus the children's primary caregiver for most of the period under consideration. T84, 403.

On April 6, 2010, Ingram met with her primary care physician, Timothy Fischer, M.D., complaining of fatigue and "terrible, " diffuse muscle pain for the past several weeks, as well as fevers and difficulty sleeping. She became tearful when discussing her work, which was a "very large source of stress" for her. T265. Fischer referred her for various laboratory tests and recommended that she remain off work for the time being. T265. In the following weeks, Ingram continued to report fevers and muscle cramping, although the cramps improved somewhat when she began taking potassium supplements. Fischer continued to keep her off work, but did not prescribe any medication other than probiotics for complaints of diarrhea. On April 26, Ingram reported that she felt like she was getting better, although she still had daily muscle cramps. Fischer cleared her to return to work on May 3 without restrictions and planned to recheck her condition in 3 months. T261, 262-65, 443.

Although Ingram was cleared to return to work, there is some ambiguity in the record as to when she actually ceased working as a therapist. In a disability report from February 2011, Ingram stated that she stopped working on March 1, 2010, and that this was due to her conditions. T202-03. She testified similarly at the hearing, stating that she worked as a therapist until March 2010, at which time she "became bedridden." T88. But these claims are contradicted by the contemporaneous notes from Fischer, which suggest she was still working. See T261, 265, 357. And Ingram later told another doctor that she worked as a therapist until July 2010, but quit when they "got rid of [her] whole ...


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