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Reimer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

July 13, 2018

KAREN J. REIMER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert F. Rossiter, Jr. United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on plaintiff Karen J. Reimer's (“Reimer”) Motion for Order (Filing No. 26) requesting judicial review of the final decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying Reimer's claim for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. Reimer asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand for an award of benefits.[1] Urging affirmance (Filing No. 28), the Commissioner contends Reimer has not shown good cause to reverse and remand. With jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court affirms the denial of benefits because the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Reimer, who previously worked as a legal assistant for approximately fifteen years, applied for disability benefits on April 26, 2014. Reimer reports a disability onset date of June 30, 2012. Born in 1952, Reimer primarily alleges she is disabled because she suffers eye problems, including conjunctivitis, blepharitis, and meibomian gland dysfunction, which results in a “severe and chronic dry eye condition” that she says prevents her from working. She also reports some back pain resulting from a bulging disc. According to Reimer, her medical conditions and resulting pain prevent her from sitting at a computer and doing her work. Her disability claim was initially denied on August 18, 2014, and denied upon reconsideration on September 17, 2014.

         At Reimer's request, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) for the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) held a hearing on June 6, 2016, at which Reimer and Debra Determan, a vocational expert, both testified. Reimer testified she worked from home as a legal assistant for her husband's law office until she could no longer get the work done, even with accommodations. Her primary job was doing computer work, which “interferes with the blink rate” needed “to keep her eyes moistened” and caused “extreme pain and burning” in her eyes. Reimer stated she uses artificial tears six times per day despite some side effects and uses Restasis, a prescription anti-inflammatory medication, twice a day. According to Reimer, Restasis causes a severe reaction, but her treating optometrist, William Meyer, O.D. (“Dr. Meyer”), and others have told her she has no alternatives. Reimer testified her reaction to Restasis “is not nearly as bad as it was in 2011 and 2012.”

         Reimer said that in 2011 and 2012, she suffered pain of eight to ten on a ten-point scale twelve to eighteen hours per day and applied warm compresses for twenty minutes two to three times per day to relieve that pain. Reimer also stated that she tried to stay indoors to avoid the dry, dusty, moving air outside because it causes her tears to evaporate, increasing the pain and burning in her eyes. Reimer testified she would also lay down and close her eyes for fifteen to twenty minutes four to six times per day.

         Reimer testified that as of 2016, her pain level had decreased to five or six on an average day unless she uses the computer for more than two hours or goes outside for more than an hour, which causes her pain to increase to a seven or eight. She stated she can reduce her pain level by staying in the house where the environment is controlled and by proactively managing her symptoms. She applies eye compresses for ten to fifteen minutes one to two times per day. Reimer testified she can go out in the yard on nice days and do some gardening and participates in a Bible study group once a week for an hour to an hour and a half. She also goes out to dinner occasionally and shops for about an hour once or twice a week.

         On July 13, 2016, the ALJ denied Reimer's benefits claim, finding she “is not disabled” under the Act. Reimer appealed the decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See, e.g., Brown v. Colvin, 825 F.3d 936, 939 (8th Cir. 2016). In denying Reimer's appeal, the Appeals Council noted Reimer had submitted a letter from Dr. Meyer dated October 19, 2016 (“Meyer letter”), that responded to some of the ALJ's analysis. The Appeals Council found the “evidence d[id] not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision.” As such, it “did not consider and exhibit t[he] evidence.”

         On October 10, 2017, Reimer filed this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's unfavorable decision. She contends the Commissioner's final decision “is not in accordance with the law and is not supported by substantial evidence as required by 42 U.S.C. §405 (g).”

         On March 11, 2018, Reimer moved (Filing No. 19) this Court for an order supplementing the administrative record with the Meyer letter. The Court denied (Filing No. 25) Reimer's motion, finding the Court was not authorized to “supplement” or add to the administrative record for review in this case and consider evidence not considered by the ALJ and the Appeals Council. Noting Reimer did not expressly request remand to the Appeals Council to expand the record, the Court determined that to the extent Reimer did seek remand, she was not entitled to relief because the Meyer letter was not new and material evidence for purposes of § 405(g).

         On April 23, 2018, Reimer moved “for an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding the case for the calculation of benefits.” On May 22, 2018, the Commissioner moved for an order affirming the denial of benefits. Those motions are now briefed and ready for decision.


         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision under § 405(g), the Court must affirm if the “denial of benefits complies with the relevant legal requirements and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Ford v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 979, 981 (8th Cir. 2008). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept it as adequate to support a decision.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). The Court must “consider both evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's decision, but even if inconsistent conclusions may be drawn from the evidence, the decision will be affirmed where substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the ALJ's decision.” Harris v. Barnhart, 356 F.3d 926, 928 (8th Cir. 2004).

         This Court does “‘not reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ,' and [must] defer to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reasons and substantial evidence.” Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006) (quoting Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003)); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010) (“We defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration.”). “If, after review, [the Court] find[s] it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the [ALJ]'s findings, [the Court] must affirm the denial of benefits.” Wiese v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 728, 730 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Mapes v. Chater, 82 F.3d 259, 262 (8th Cir. 1996)).

         B. Eligibility for Disability Benefits

         To be eligible for disability benefits, Reimer must show she is unable “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. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). Reimer is disabled under the Act only if her “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. at § 423(d)(2)(A).

         “The Commissioner uses a five-step evaluation to determine if a claimant is disabled.” Kirby, 500 F.3d at 707; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). That sequential process requires the ALJ to consider “(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in any substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals [a listed impairment]; (4) whether the claimant can return to her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant can adjust to other work in the national economy.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v)). Steps Four and Five require the ALJ to assess the claimant's residual functioning capacity (“RFC”), id., which is the most the claimant “can still do despite [her] limitations, ” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ “must determine a claimant's RFC based on all relevant evidence, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and claimant's own descriptions of [her] limitations.” Baldwin, 349 F.3d at 556.

         Properly following the five-step process in this case, the ALJ determined Reimer “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 30, 2012, ” and “has the following severe impairments: Meibomian gland dysfunction, conjunctivitis, dry eye syndrome, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.” The ALJ concluded Reimer's impairments, though severe, did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment.

         After carefully considering “the entire record, ” including Reimer's reported symptoms, the objective medical evidence, and opinion evidence, the ALJ determined Reimer “has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)” with some limitations. The ALJ found Reimer's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [Reimer's] statements concerning the intensity, ...

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