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Friesen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

April 4, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security; Defendant.


          Susan M. Bazis United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Kimberly Friesen (“Plaintiff”) claims in this Social Security appeal that the Commissioner's decision to deny her benefits under the Social Security Act is contrary to law and not supported by substantial evidence. Having considered all arguments and materials presented, and for the reasons explained below, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.


         On April 4, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental benefits under the Social Security Act. (TR. 179.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for hearing in September, 2015. (TR. 117.) An administrative hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on March 17, 2017. (TR. 36.)

         On June 20, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 12.) In the decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's claim by following the five-step sequential analysis prescribed by the Social Security Regulations.[1] See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The ALJ found Plaintiff had the severe impairments of “diabetes, mellitus, fibromyalgia, costochondritis, dysthymic disorder, a left tibia/fibula fracture (status post open reduction internal fixation), and anxiety disorder.” (TR. 17.) The ALJ formulated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] as follows:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work . . . except: She is able to lift and/or carry ten pounds occasionally. She can stand and/or walk about 2 hours in an 8-hour workday (with normal breaks) and can sit about 6 hours (with normal breaks). She can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold. She is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks with only occasional decision-making and changes in the work setting. She can only have occasional interaction with both coworkers and the public.

(TR. 20.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have any past relevant work but concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 25-26.) These jobs include document preparer, addressor, and office helper. (TR. 25-26.) Based on these findings, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (TR. 27.)

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council on August 21, 2017. (TR. 173.) The Appeals Council denied the request for review on April 23, 2018. (TR. 1.) Having been denied review by the Appeal Council, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.


         A denial of benefits by the Commissioner is reviewed to determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 960 (8th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence” is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion. Id. at 960-61; Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). Evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision must be considered, but the decision may not be reversed merely because substantial evidence supports a contrary outcome. See Moad v. Massanari, 260 F.3d 887, 890 (8thCir. 2001).

         On appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in placing limited weight on the opinion of Plaintiff's treating family physician, Dr. Steven Husen (“Dr. Husen”). Plaintiff further contends that because the ALJ failed to afford proper weight to Dr. Husen's opinion, the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert failed to include all limitations supported by the evidence. For the reasons stated below, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision.

         1.Treating Physician

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to the opinion of her treating primary care physician, Dr. Husen. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ failed to give good reasons for the weight placed upon Dr. Husen's opinion. “A treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence.” Medhaug v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 805, 815 (8th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). A treating physician's opinion does not automatically control because the record must be evaluated as a whole. Id. “An ALJ may discount or even disregard the opinion of a treating physician where other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence, or where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions.” Id. (quotation omitted). Still, “[w]hether granting a treating physician's opinion substantial or little weight . . . the commissioner must always give good reasons . . . for the weight she gives.” Rentzell v. Berryhill, No. 4:17CV3037, 2018 WL 2050559, at *8 (D. Neb. May 1, 2018) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         Dr. Husen has treated Plaintiff for various conditions since 1998. (TR. 588.) On February 21, 2017, Dr. Husen completed a Medical Source Statement in connection with Plaintiff's disability claim. (TR. 588-592.) Dr. Husen identified Plaintiff's symptoms as cognitive dysfunction, non-restorative sleep, muscle pain, muscle weakness, insomnia, myofascial pain syndrome, malaise, chronic fatigue syndrome, waking unrefreshed, and cognitive impairment. (TR. 588.) When asked to identify the medical findings that support Plaintiff's complaints of pain, Dr. Husen responded that Plaintiff had “subjective [complaints of] pain on every visit usually rating pain 7-8/10 point pain scale” and that Plaintiff “clinically appears to be in pain when she is [complains of] pain.” (TR. 589.) As to clinical findings, ...

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