Mehring-Cruz v. Commissioner of Social Security
ORDER: Accepting 16 Report and Recommendation: The Commissioner's determination that Plaintiff was not disabled is affirmed: Judgment shall enter in favor of the Commissioner and against the Plaintiff. Signed by Chief Judge Leonard T Strand on 08/15/17. (kfs)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF IOWA
CEDAR RAPIDS DIVISION
CHRISTIE M. MEHRING-CRUZ,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,1
ORDER ON REPORT AND
This case is before me on a Report and Recommendation (R&R) filed by the
Honorable C.J. Williams, Chief United States Magistrate Judge. See Doc. No. 16. Judge
Williams recommends that I affirm the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security
(the Commissioner). Neither party has objected to the R&R. The deadline for such
objections has expired.
Judicial Review of the Commissioner’s Decision
The Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed “if it is supported by substantial
evidence on the record as a whole.” Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577 (8th Cir.
2006); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as
to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . .”). “Substantial
evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept
Berryhill replaced previous Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin.
substituted as the defendant in this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Berryhill has been
as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lewis, 353 F.3d at 645. The Eighth Circuit
explains the standard as “something less than the weight of the evidence and [that] allows
for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of
choice within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant or deny benefits without
being subject to reversal on appeal.” Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir.
In determining whether the Commissioner’s decision meets this standard, the court
considers “all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but it [does] not re-weigh the
evidence.” Wester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005). The court considers
both evidence that supports the Commissioner’s decision and evidence that detracts from
it. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010). The court must “search the
record for evidence contradicting the [Commissioner’s] decision and give that evidence
appropriate weight when determining whether the overall evidence in support is
substantial.” Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing Cline v.
Sullivan, 939 F.2d 560, 564 (8th Cir. 1991)).
In evaluating the evidence in an appeal of a denial of benefits, the court must apply
a balancing test to assess any contradictory evidence. Sobania v. Sec’y of Health &
Human Servs., 879 F.2d 441, 444 (8th Cir. 1989). The court, however, does not
“reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ,” Baldwin, 349 F.3d at 555 (citing Bates v.
Chater, 54 F.3d 529, 532 (8th Cir. 1995)), or “review the factual record de novo.” Roe
v. Chater, 92 F.3d 672, 675 (8th Cir. 1996) (citing Naber v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 186, 188
(8th Cir. 1994)). Instead, if, after reviewing the evidence, the court finds it “possible to
draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents
the Commissioner’s findings, [the court] must affirm the [Commissioner’s] denial of
benefits.” Kluesner, 607 F.3d at 536 (quoting Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th
Cir. 2008)). This is true even in cases where the court “might have weighed the evidence
differently.” Culbertson, 30 F.3d at 939 (quoting Browning v. Sullivan, 958 F.2d 817,
822 (8th Cir. 1992)). The court may not reverse the Commissioner’s decision “merely
because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.” Baker v.
Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984); see Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789
(8th Cir. 2005) (“[A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal simply because
some evidence may support the opposite conclusion.”).
Review of Report and Recommendation
A district judge must review a magistrate judge’s R&R under the following
Within fourteen days after being served with a copy, any party may serve
and file written objections to such proposed findings and recommendations
as provided by rules of court. A judge of the court shall make a de novo
determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings
or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may
accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or
recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also
receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Thus, when a party objects to
any portion of an R&R, the district judge must undertake a de novo review of that portion.
Any portions of an R&R to which no objections have been made must be reviewed
under at least a “clearly erroneous” standard. See, e.g., Grinder v. Gammon, 73 F.3d
793, 795 (8th Cir. 1996) (noting that when no objections are filed “[the district court
judge] would only have to review the findings of the magistrate judge for clear error”).
As the Supreme Court has explained, “[a] finding is ‘clearly erroneous’ when although
there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the
definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Anderson v. City of
Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573-74 (1985) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co.,
333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). However, a district judge may elect to review an R&R under
a more-exacting standard even if no objections are filed:
Any party that desires plenary consideration by the Article III judge of any
issue need only ask. Moreover, while the statute does not require the judge
to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed, it does not preclude
further review by the district judge, sua sponte or at the request of a party,
under a de novo or any other standard.
Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985).
Plaintiff Christie M. Mehring-Cruz applied for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42
U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Act). After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) applied
the familiar five-step evaluation and found that Mehring-Cruz was not disabled as defined
by the Act. In her appeal to this court, Mehring-Cruz argued that the ALJ erred in
determining that she was not disabled because:
The ALJ failed to properly evaluate the work-related limitations
from treating rheumatologist Dr. Rebecca Tuetken
The ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of Mehring-Cruz’s
therapist, Kelly Christensen.
The ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment (RFC) is not
supported by substantial medical evidence from a treating or
The ALJ improperly discounted Mehring-Cruz’s subjective
allegations without identifying inconsistencies in the record as a
See Doc. No. 13. Both parties filed briefs (Doc. Nos. 13 and 14) and the parties also
filed a joint statement of facts (Doc. No. 12).
Judge Williams addressed each argument in his R&R. Regarding Mehring-Cruz’s
argument that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the work-related limitations assigned
by Dr. Tuetken, Mehring-Cruz stated that the ALJ’s RFC differed from those limitations
in three key respects. Doc. No. 13 at 3-7. First, she argued that the ALJ’s RFC
disregarded Dr. Tuetken’s statement that Mehring-Cruz “needed a job that permitted
shifting from sitting, standing, or walking at will.” Id. at 6. Second, she argued the
RFC omitted Dr. Tuetken’s finding that “Mehring-Cruz would be off task 20% of a work
day due to symptoms severe enough to interfere with attention and concentration.” Id.
at 7. Third, she argued the RFC omitted Dr. Tuetken’s finding that Mehring-Cruz could
only perform low-stress work. Id.
Judge Williams addressed the first and second alleged omissions:
The ALJ stated that his residual functional capacity assessment integrated
the records as a whole. The ALJ further stated that each individual
assertion found in Dr. Tuetken’s Medical Source Statement (dated October
27, 2015, (AR 830)) was considered individually as to whether that
assertion was supported or contradicted by the record. The ALJ found that
Dr. Tuetken’s assertions that (1) claimant required frequent shifting and (2)
claimant would likely be off task 20% of a work day is not supported by
objective findings in Dr. Tuetken’s medical records or the records as a
whole. (AR 813). Dr. Tuetken stated that her opinion regarding claimant’s
limitations was based mainly on claimant’s subjective complaints. See AR
835 (“Her limitations are mainly subjective.”). Minney v. Berryhill, No.
16-CV-00175-LTS, 2017 WL 2110767, at 9 (N.D. Iowa May 15, 2017)
(holding that ALJ was entitled to decline to give controlling weight to
treating physician’s opinions on claimant’s work-place limitations in
proceeding to obtain supplemental security income (SSI), where opinions
relied on claimant’s subjective complaints).
Doc. No. 16 at 17. Judge Williams then addressed the third omission:
The ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment included restrictions of
work limited to simple work-related decisions and occasional workplace
changes, and only occasional contact with the public, coworkers and
supervisors. I find these restrictions are consistent with the low stress work
suggested by Dr. Tuetken. (AR 834).
Doc. No. 16 at 17. Judge Williams concluded as follows:
the ALJ properly acted within his zone of choice in weighing the work
related limitations opined by treating rheumatologist Dr. Rebecca Tuetken.
The ALJ relied on the statements of Dr. Tuetken in his residual functional
capacity analysis and furthermore he explained how the residual functional
capacity analysis substantially conforms to Dr. Tuetken’s statement. The
ALJ conducted an adequate analysis in the areas of his residual functional
capacity assessment that did not conform to that of Dr. Tuetken. (AR 834).
Therefore, I find the ALJ did not err here.
Doc. No. 16 at 18.
Mehring-Cruz next argued that the ALJ failed to explain the weight given to the
opinion of Keri Christensen, or to otherwise ensure that the discussion of the evidence in
the determination or decision allows a claimant or subsequent reviewer to follow the
adjudicator’s reasoning. Doc. No. 13 at 8-16. Judge Williams rejected this argument,
I find the ALJ adequately explained the reasoning and weight given to the
evidence concerning the diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and panic
attacks. The ALJ found that the degree of severity of claimant’s subjective
symptoms were not supported by objective medical evidence in the records,
in accordance with 20 C.F.R. § 416.929. (AR 35). See Julin, 826 F.3d at
1086. Therefore, I find the ALJ properly considered Ms. Christensen’s
opinion and adequately described the review of the sources used as well as
Doc. No. 16 at 19.
Mehring-Cruz third argument was that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions
of Dr. Tuetken and Ms. Christensen without fully and fairly developing the record,
specifically arguing that the ALJ should have obtained limitations that could have
supported his decision from a treating or examining source. Doc. No. 13 at 16-18.
Mehring-Cruz argued that, as a result, the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence.
Id. Judge Williams rejected Mehring-Cruz’s characterization of the RFC generally, as
well as her characterization of the ALJ’s treatment of Dr. Tuetken’s opinions, stating:
Here, claimant misstates the record by suggesting the ALJ based his RFC
assessment only on non-examining consulting physicians. The ALJ actually
assigned great weight to the opinion of Dr. Tuetken, claimant’s treating
physician. The ALJ did not rely merely on the opinions of non-treating
non-examining physicians reviewing reports of treating physicians for his
RFC determination. Indeed, the ALJ’s RFC assessment largely mirrors the
recommendations of Dr. Tuetken, who also recommended that claimant can
tolerate low stress work. (AR 834). The ALJ did not discount Dr.
Tuetken’s evaluation as non-reliable. The ALJ weighed each item in Dr.
Tuetken’s evaluation against the record, specifically those items where
claimant’s subjective complaints were the main source of her evaluation.
(AR 23). Therefore, I find the ALJ’s residual functional capacity
assessment is supported by the required substantial medical evidence, and
has combined specific medical opinions and reconciliation of those opinions
with the medical records. See Fentress v. Berryhill, 854 F.3d 1016, 1017
(8th Cir. 2017) (holding that the Court will uphold a decision to deny
benefits if that decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record
as a whole).
Doc. No. 16 at 20-21.
Finally, Mehring-Cruz argued that the ALJ improperly discounted the intensity of
her subjective symptoms. Doc. No. 13 at 18-21. Judge Williams rejected this argument
as well, stating:
Contrary to claimant’s argument, the ALJ did detail his reasons for
discrediting the testimony and set forth the inconsistencies found. (AR 35,
36). The ALJ concluded that the record contained clear evidence that
claimant magnified her symptoms for the purpose of receiving benefits.
(Id.). “The credibility of a claimant’s subjective testimony is primarily for
the ALJ to decide, not the courts.” Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211,
1218 (8th Cir. 2001) (internal citation omitted). Accordingly, a court must
“defer to the ALJ’s determinations regarding the credibility of testimony,
so long as they are supported by good reasons and substantial evidence.”
Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005).
Here, the initial Disability Determination explanation for the DIB claim was
reviewed by Dr. Stienjes on December 2, 2014, who concluded that
claimant’s credibility was eroded by inconsistencies of claimant’s reported
symptoms compared to the records. (AR 101). Jonathan Brandon, Ph.D.
completed the Mental RFC on December 24, 2014, and found her
psychiatric symptoms generally credible but felt claimant could perform
tasks consisting of 3-4 step commands in a work setting with reduced social
interactions. (AR 104). Dr. Brandon also reviewed the initial Disability
Determination explanation for the DIB claim and also opined that claimant’s
credibility was eroded by inconsistencies of claimant’s reported symptoms
compared to the records as previously described. (AR 115). The
reconsideration for the DI claim was completed by Myrna Tashner, Ed.D.
on April 7, 2015, for the mental evaluation and by John May, MD for the
medical portion. Dr. May affirmed the prior determination. Myrna
Tashner, Ed.D. affirmed the prior determination including that the mental
complaints are generally credible. (AR 136).
Here, the ALJ did not discount claimant’s subjective complaints solely
because they were not supported by objective medical evidence. Consistent
with Polaski, the ALJ weighed the record and I find the ALJ adequately
detailed inconsistencies found in the record. The ALJ identified instances
where claimant’s testimony contradicted the record. Specifically, the
record of Dr. Brownell of October 28, 2015, contradicts claimant’s
testimony of panic attacks, and the normal gait examination contradicts her
testimony that she stumbles if she stands more than 30 minutes. (AR 36).
Furthermore, claimant’s self-described activities of daily living are
inconsistent with the severity of symptoms to which she testified. (AR 36).
The ALJ listed additional factors he weighed in reaching his conclusion as
to claimant’s credibility: pattern of symptoms, precipitating factors,
medications and side effects, treatments and benefit of those treatments,
accommodations for symptoms, and functional limitations due to pain. (AR
In my own review of the records, I find that the documented examinations
do not describe physical findings that would support disability as defined in
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Igo v. Colvin, 839 F.3d 724, 731 (8th Cir.
2016) (holding ALJ’s adverse credibility determination for claimant was
supported by substantial evidence including ALJ’s finding that claimant’s
alleged limitations were inconsistent with his daily activities). I find there
was substantial evidence on the record as a whole to support the ALJ’s
decision to discount the weight given to claimant’s description of the
intensity, persistence, and functionally limiting effects of her impairments.
Doc. No. 16 at 21-23.
Because the parties did not object to the R&R, I have reviewed it for clear error.
I find no error in Judge Williams’ application of the appropriate legal standards to the
evidentiary record. Accordingly, I agree with Judge Williams that the ALJ’s findings
are supported by substantial evidence. As such, I adopt the R&R in its entirety.
For the reasons set forth herein:
I accept Judge Williams’ R&R (Doc. No. 16) without modification. See
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
Pursuant to Judge Williams’ recommendation:
The Commissioner’s determination that plaintiff was not disabled is
Judgment shall enter in favor of the Commissioner and against the
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 15th day of August, 2017.
Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge
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