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Chesser v. Berryhill

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 9, 2017

Janet Chesser Plaintiff-Appellant
Nancy A. Berryhill [1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: January 12, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Jonesboro

          Before COLLOTON, GRUENDER, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         Janet Chesser appeals the district court's[2] order affirming the Social Security Administration's (SSA) denial of social security disability benefits. Chesser argues that the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) determination of the severity of her mental limitations is not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.

         I. Background

         Chesser, born in 1986, protectively filed social security disability applications on April 26, 2012. She alleged a disability onset date of December 15, 2011, stemming from anxiety, depression, nightmares, paranoia, auditory and visual hallucinations, panic attacks, carpal tunnel syndrome, [3] and migraine headaches.

         On September 3, 2013, the ALJ held a hearing on Chesser's claims. Chesser presented evidence of the above conditions, including documentary evidence from several medical sources. Chesser testified that she left her most recent job because she moved to another state following a divorce. She testified that she was unable to secure employment because she could not "comprehend anything" and did not "understand what people tell" her. Chesser explained that she spent her time watching television and sleeping, that she preferred to be alone, and that her boyfriend managed the household and cooked meals. She said that mental health treatment and medication improved her symptoms, but that she was unable to afford all of the medications prescribed to her. Chesser's written surveys and application for benefits echoed these complaints regarding depression, anxiety, and mood swings.

         The ALJ considered the entirety of the record and applied the familiar five-step process prescribed by the social security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The ALJ ultimately determined that Chesser had the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform "light work, " as that term is defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b),

except the claimant cannot perform rapid repetitive flexion or extension of the wrists bilaterally. The claimant is able to perform work where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed, where "incidental" is defined as interpersonal contact requiring a limited degree of interaction such as meeting and greeting the public, answering simple questions, accepting payment and making change. The claimant is able to perform work where the complexity of tasks can be learned by demonstration or repetition within thirty days with few variables, little judgment, and the supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete.

         In arriving at this RFC determination, the ALJ found that Chesser's testimony about the severity of her limitations was not fully credible, and as a result, afforded little weight to the observations of Chesser's caseworker and Mental Health Paraprofessional (MHPP), because those opinions were based on Chesser's subjective complaints. Likewise, the ALJ assigned little weight to the opinion of Chesser's treating physician, finding his opinions were internally inconsistent and inconsistent with the record as a whole. Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ held that Chesser was able to perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ concluded that Chesser was not disabled and denied her request for benefits.

         II. Discussion

         We review de novo whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the ALJ's decision. See Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015). "Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion." Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). While we must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's determination, we "may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because substantial evidence supports a contrary outcome." Id. (quoting Warburton v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1047, 1050 (8th Cir. 1999)). "[I]f it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the agency's findings, we must affirm the decision." Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1323 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Oberst v. Shalala, 2 F.3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)).

         First, Chesser argues that the ALJ erred by assigning little weight to the opinion of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Miguel Casillas. The opinion of a treating physician is generally afforded "controlling weight if that opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record." Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Brown v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 535, 540 (8th Cir. 2004)). Where an ALJ assigns less than controlling weight to the opinion of a treating source, the ALJ must "give good reasons" for doing so. Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). Good reasons for assigning lesser weight to the opinion of a treating source exist where "the treating physician's opinions are themselves inconsistent, " Cruze, 85 F.3d at ...

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