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Miller v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

January 6, 2020

JENNIFER J. MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Jennifer Miller, who is currently representing herself, filed this action for judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II. Miller contends that the decision of the administrative law judge (ALJ) is flawed and requires remand for two reasons: (1) the ALJ improperly gave less weight to the opinions of Marya Liechti, Kristin Ovadal, and Kristin Gage and (2) the opinions of Dr. Steve Krawiec, Dr. Edmund Musholt, and Dr. Robert Starace do not support the ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) findings. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Miller filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 6, 2014. R. 13. She listed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and depression as the conditions that limited her ability to work. R. 241. After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, Miller requested a hearing before an ALJ. On July 10, 2017, ALJ Jeffry Gauthier conducted a video hearing where Miller, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (VE) testified. R. 35-100.

         At the time of the hearing, Miller lived at home with her daughter, who was 10 years old. R. 47. She testified that her only source of income was survivor's benefits related to the death of her husband and that she receives food assistance and health insurance from the State. R. 48. Miller testified that she has a bachelor's degree in organizational administration and that she started, but did not finish, a master's program. R. 50-53. She previously worked at Randstad, Avon, and Associated Bank. R. 54-56.

         Miller testified that PTSD, anxiety, and depression are the conditions that render her disabled and unable to work. R. 50-75. She stated that her PTSD was caused by her emotionally and physically abusive husband, R. 59, 61, and the sexual abuse she endured by the child of a family friend when she was four years old, R. 63-64. Miller testified that she has episodes of depression every few months that last three to four days. R. 73-74. She stated that she takes lorazepam and clonazepam, and while those medications do not help her function, they mitigate the anxiety and physical symptoms caused by her anxiety. R. 66-68. She also stated that she has participated in weekly counseling over the past few years. R. 75.

         When asked about her fibromyalgia, Miller stated that it does not limit her ability to work. R. 80. Miller testified that her fibromyalgia prevents her from walking or standing for long periods of time but noted that standing is better than sitting. She testified that her fibromyalgia stems from her severe anxiety and that her symptoms cause her to get dizzy, limit her ability to walk, and create difficulty sleeping. Id. Miller stated she generally sleeps five hours a night but less if she has nightmares. She reported experiencing nightmares two times a week. R. 89-91. Miller stated that she takes amitriptyline to help with her sleep. R. 66.

         As to her activities of daily living, Miller reported that she has her driver's license and drives to appointments, the grocery store, and her parents' house. R. 49. She testified that she can function so long as she limits her world by minimizing trips outside of the home or going to the store at times when it will not be busy. R. 81. Miller stated that she volunteered in her daughter's classroom on an as-needed basis, spends some time sewing and painting, and walks her daughter to school. R. 50, 82-83. She stated that she avoids contact with the public and avoids physical contact with men. R. 89.

         In a fourteen-page decision dated October 4, 2017, the ALJ determined that Miller is not disabled. R. 13-26. The ALJ's decision followed the five-step sequential process for determining disability prescribed by the Social Security Administration (SSA). At step one, the ALJ found that Miller met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 13, 2018, the alleged onset date. R. 15. At step two, the ALJ concluded Miller has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. At step three, the ALJ found that Miller did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 15-17.

         The ALJ next assessed Miller's RFC and found that she can perform light work subject to the following limitations:

She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps or stairs. She cannot work at unprotected heights or around moving mechanical parts. The claimant cannot operate a motor vehicle in a place of work. With regard to understanding, remembering and carrying out instructions, she can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at a production rate pace (e.g. assembly line work). With regard to use of judgment in the workplace, she can make simple work-related decisions. The claimant is capable of occasional interaction with the public and coworkers and frequent interaction with supervisors. She can tolerate occasional changes in a routine work setting. In addition to normally scheduled breaks, she will be off task less than 10% of the time during an 8-hour workday.

R. 17. At step four, the ALJ concluded Miller would be unable to perform past relevant work but would be able to perform the following occupations: mail clerk, marker, and office helper. R. 24-25. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Miller is not disabled. R. 26. The Appeals Council denied Miller's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Judicial review of the decisions of administrative agencies is intended to be deferential. Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010). The Social Security Act specifies that the “findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 874 (7th Cir. 2010). Although a decision denying benefits need not discuss every piece of evidence, remand is appropriate when an ALJ fails to provide adequate support for the conclusions drawn. Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). The ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and conclusions. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. ...


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