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Dixon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

July 19, 2019

SARAH M. DIXON, 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 Sarah M. Dixon's (“Dixon”) Motion for an Order Reversing the Commissioner's Decision (Filing No. 14) seeking judicial review of the final decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying Dixon's claim for benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. and 1381 et seq. Having filed a Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision (Filing No. 18), the Commissioner resists Dixon's motion. For the reasons stated below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts

         Dixon has been diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis and fibromyalgia. She was born on April 19, 1984, has a high-school diploma, and has previously worked as a customer-service representative and a telephone solicitor. On January 20, 2015, Dixon protectively applied for disability benefits and supplemental-security income, alleging a disability beginning on September 26, 2013.

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Dixon's claims on September 4, 2015, and on reconsideration on November 5, 2015. On Dixon's request, an SSA Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing on June 1, 2017, at which Dixon testified and was represented by counsel.

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         After the hearing, the ALJ undertook the familiar five-step sequential process for determining disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. During that process, the ALJ asks:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed; (2) whether the claimant is severely impaired; (3) whether the impairment is or approximates an impairment listed in Appendix 1; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and, if not, (5) whether the claimant can perform any other kind of work.

Hill v. Colvin, 753 F.3d 798, 800 (8th Cir. 2014).

         The ALJ found Dixon met the first two steps: she had not engaged in a substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability-onset date and she is severely impaired. Specifically, the ALJ found Dixon “has the following severe impairments: ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, and obesity.” At Step Three, the ALJ determined Dixon's impairment or combination of impairments do not meet or equal any listing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.925, and 416.926. The ALJ expressly considered Listing 1.04 for disorders of the spine and did not find that Dixon has a spine disorder with the requisite characteristics to meet or equal that listing.

         The ALJ next considered Dixon's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ concluded Dixon could perform sedentary work, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), with the “ability to shift between sitting and standing every thirty minutes for one to two minutes.” The ALJ further determined Dixon could (1) “occasionally stoop, crouch, and climb ramps or stairs, ” (2) occasionally rotate, flex, and extend her neck, (3) “have no more than frequent exposure to extreme heat or cold, ” (4) “never kneel, crawl, or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, ” and (5) “never be exposed to vibration or workplace hazards” like unprotected heights or moving machinery (“RFC finding”).

         In making the RFC finding, the ALJ considered (1) Dixon's own reports about her symptoms, (2) documentation from Dixon's mother supporting her symptoms, (3) Dixon's activities, (4) findings from Dixon's treating and consulting physicians, and (5) diagnostic studies. Based on those considerations, the ALJ determined Dixon's complaints about her symptoms were not entirely consistent with her daily activities and the objective medical evidence. Although a medical-source statement submitted by John Hurley, M.D. (“Dr. Hurley”), one of Dixon's treating physicians, supported some of Dixon's allegations, the ALJ afforded less weight to parts of that statement as overly vague and unsupported.

         Moving to Step Four, the ALJ determined Dixon could perform her past relevant work as a customer-service representative and telephone solicitor. Accordingly, the ALJ found Dixon is not disabled as defined under the SSA. See §§ 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f).

         Dixon requests the Court reverse the ALJ's decision because she believes the ALJ: (1) erred in evaluating “Ms. Dixon's Fibromyalgia at Step 3 and while evaluating Ms. Dixon's subjective complaints, ” (2) “failed to provide good reasons for the weight afforded” to Dr. Hurley's opinions, and (3) “was an inferior officer not appointed in a constitutional manner.”


         A. Standard of Review

         The Court will affirm an ALJ's decision “if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.” Teague v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 611, 614 (8th Cir. 2011); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the [ALJ's] conclusions.” Nash v. Comm'r, 907 F.3d 1086, 1089 (8th Cir. 2018) (quoting Travis v. Astrue, 477 F.3d 1037, 1040 (8th Cir. 2007). The Court considers evidence that detracts from and supports the ALJ's decision. Id. If 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.” Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Heino v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 873, 879 (8th Cir. 2009)).

         B. Fibromyalgia

         Social Security Ruling 12-2p (“SSR 12-2p”), 77 Fed. Reg. 43640-01 (2012), explains how the SSA evaluates fibromyalgia in the disability analysis. Dixon alleges the ALJ erred in assessing her fibromyalgia claim by not following SSR 12-2p, “leading to Step Three and credibility evaluation errors.” Specifically, Dixon alleges remand is warranted because the ALJ: (1) failed to evaluate her fibromyalgia claim under SSR 12-2p and Listing 14.09D at Step Three and (2) over-relied on the lack of ...

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