Brown v. Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER affirming the Commissioner's decision, and hereby dismissing the case with prejudice. Signed by Magistrate Judge Beth Deere on 09/25/08. (hph)
I N THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT E A S T E R N DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS E A S T E R N DIVISION B O B B I E BROWN V. No. 2:07CV00123-BD PLAINTIFF
M I C H A E L J. ASTRUE, C o m m is s io n e r of Social Security
M E M O R A N D U M OPINION AND ORDER P la in tif f Bobbie Brown seeks judicial review of a final decision of the C o m m iss io n e r of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her claim f o r disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(I), 423, 1381-1382c. This action is brought under § 205(g) of the amended Act, 4 2 U.S.C. § 405(g), as incorporated by reference through 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (the "A ct"). I. A D M I N IS T R A T I V E PROCEEDINGS T h e Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on February 15, 2 0 0 5 , alleging disability since July 28, 2004. (Tr. 63-65) Her claims were denied initially a n d upon reconsideration. (Tr. 46-48, 55-56) At the Plaintiff's request, a hearing was h e ld on April 25, 2007, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").1 The Plaintiff te stif ie d at the hearing (Tr. 597-625), as did her husband (Tr. 626-33) and a vocational ex p ert. (Tr. 633-36) The Plaintiff was represented by her attorney at the hearing. (Tr.
The Honorable David J. Manley.
5 9 4 ) On June 27, 2007, the ALJ issued his decision denying the Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 2 1 -29 ) On September 11, 2007, the Appeals Council denied her request for review (Tr. 6 -8 ), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. It is from this d e c is io n that the Plaintiff seeks judicial review. II. BACKGROUND T h e Plaintiff claimed disability based on bladder problems 2 and anxiety. (Tr. 81) A t the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was fifty years old, with two years of college e d u c a tio n . (Tr. 21, 86, 597-598). She had past relevant work as a cashier, an assembly lin e worker, and a substitute teacher. (Tr. 21, 82-83, 88-95, 101-102, 598-605) She lived w ith her husband and fourteen-year-old daughter. (Tr. 605) The Plaintiff testified that she h a d experienced problems with her nerves for years but that the problems had worsened a s she had aged. Her medications at the time of the hearing included Seroquel, A lpraz o lam , iron for anemia, and Aleve for headaches. (Tr. 146) The Plaintiff's activities of daily life included getting her daughter off to school in th e mornings, cleaning house, cooking, going to the gym twice a week, visiting her m o th e r, driving, and regularly attending church and Bible study. (Tr. 610-12) In 2006,
Plaintiff apparently does not pursue her claim of disability based on urinary in c o n tin e n c e in her appeal of the Commissioner's decision. Accordingly, the Court will re v ie w the ALJ's decision that the Plaintiff's mental condition did not render her disabled u n d e r the Act. 2
s h e was able to host a Christmas dinner at her home for ten to twelve family members. (Tr. 606-07) Plaintiff had been treated for emotional and mental problems since 2001. Her m ed ical history is extensive. George Conner, M.D., Plaintiff's primary care doctor, d ia g n o s e d depression with anxiety in March, 2002, and prescribed Effexor. (Tr. 194) He h as treated the Plaintiff from that time forward. Dr. Conner and other medical providers h a v e prescribed various drugs over the years to treat Plaintiff's anxiety, including L ex ap ro (Tr. 186, 185, 184, 282), Ativan (Tr. 339-40), Zoloft. (Tr. 266), Paxil. (Tr. 2 5 1 -5 2 ), Lorazepam. ( Tr. 277-78), Ambien. (Tr. 284, 282, 280, 424-30, 417-18, 339-40), Seroquel (Tr. 281), Xanax (Alprazolam) (Tr. 296-98), Abilify, Cogentin, Sonata. (Tr. 4 5 4 -58 ) and Prozac (Tr. 339-40). O n April 26, 2005, the Plaintiff underwent a consultative mental status evaluation p e rf o rm e d by Charles Spellman, Ph.D. (Tr. 218) At the time she was taking Paxil, L e x a p r o , Concerta, Lorazepam, and Ativan. (Tr. 218). Dr. Spellman diagnosed post tra u m a tic stress disorder but noted that the Plaintiff "fixes complete meals, goes shopping f o r groceries, drives a vehicle, and attends church regularly. She pays bills. She manages th e family money. She has friends. . . . She is involved in her daughter's school activities. . . . A typical day might include visiting her mother, doing housework, checking on her d au g h ter at school. . . . Her plans are that, perhaps, she would like to travel in the future b u t not [too] far at one time." (Tr. 220) Dr. Spellman found no areas of significant
lim ita tio n in adaptive functioning and no evidence of exaggeration or malingering. (Tr. 220-21) He found no evidence of "unusual passivity, dependency, aggression, im p u lsiv en ess, or withdrawal. (Tr. 220) Although Plaintiff complained of memory p ro b le m s , Dr. Spellman noted that "possible memory loss . . . did not seem significant e n o u g h to warrant a diagnosis." (Tr. 220) O n June 30, 2006, the Plaintiff was admitted to the emergency room of the Baptist M e m o r ia l Hospital in Memphis with psychosis. She was given injections of Haldol and A tiv a n . (Tr. 354, 358). The next day, on July 1, 2006, the Plaintiff was involuntarily c o m m itte d to Lakeside Behavioral Health System for acute psychosis with delusional type b e h a v io r. During her hospitalization, Plaintiff was placed on Ambien for sleep and H a ld o l injections twice a day for acute exacerbation of psychotic symptomatology. The H a ld o l was tapered down and eventually discontinued. The Plaintiff was discharged on J u ly 10, 2006, with a final diagnosis of psychosis and a global assessment of functioning ("G A F ") of 80. Her discharge medications included Abilify, Cogentin, and Sonata. (Tr. 4 5 4 -5 8 ) O n July 17, 2006, the Plaintiff was admitted to Counseling Consultants as an o u tp a tien t. She was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, psychosis, and possible b ip o la r disorder with psychotic features. (Tr. 400-401) On July 24, 2006, the Plaintiff w a s prescribed Abilify, and Sonata and Cogentin were discontinued. (Tr. 399) During a
m e d ica tio n management appointment on June 31, 2007, the Plaintiff was diagnosed with a mood disorder and psychosis. She was also assigned a GAF score of 48. (Tr. 402-406) O n July 28, 2006, Dr. Conner saw the Plaintiff for a follow-up for her psychosis. H e noted that she was much improved with no obvious psychotic behavior. Dr. Conner in c re a se d the dosage of Abilify. (Tr. 434) O n December 8, 2006, the Plaintiff was seen by Jack Morgan, M.D., a psychiatrist. Dr. Morgan noted that the Plaintiff's mood was stable and that there were no overt p s yc h o tic symptoms. He assigned her a GAF of 70. (Tr. 444) During a January 19, 2007 o f f ice visit, Dr. Morgan noted that the Plaintiff was feeling well and was working out at a g ym at least once a week. He continued to prescribed Seroquel and Xanax. (Tr. 445) O n a March 2, 2007 visit to Dr. Morgan, the Plaintiff reported that she was feeling m o re relaxed and "calmed down." Dr. Morgan continued to diagnose depressive disorder a n d anxiety disorder. On March 9, 2007, Dr. Morgan increased the dosage of Seroquel b ec au se the Plaintiff reported not sleeping. (Tr. 446). In an April 25, 2007 letter, Dr. Conner stated: I have been a primary care provider for Bobbie A. Brown since December o f 2001. I have seen her for a variety of complaints and problems. I have s e e n no evidence of malingering of deceptive behavior. She has suffered fro m anxiety and anxiety-related illness during the years I have seen her. L a st year she suffered with an episode which caused psychosis and re q u ire d her hospitalization. Since that time her emotional state would not a llo w employment. I have been concerned since that time she would not b e able to return to full time employment. She has been in a relatively s ta b le condition over the past few months but because of the continued p ro b lem s she has with stress and anxiety in normal daily activity, she is 5
n o t able to tolerate full time employment. In my opinion, she is not able to re tu rn to work now or in the future. (Tr. 448). O n May 31, 2007, Dr. Morgan noted that the Plaintiff was "doing fairly well." (Tr. 449) He noted that there were occasions, such as preparing for special occasions s u c h as her grandson's graduation party, when the Plaintiff had "some feeling of tension o r emotional distress," but that it was "nothing severe." (Tr. 449) He assigned her a GAF o f 65 and recommended that she start seeing a counselor as well. (Tr. 449) On July 10, 2007, The Plaintiff reported to Dr. Conner that her medications were w o rk in g well. She requested a refill on her medications instead of having to get them f ro m Dr. Morgan due to the expense of traveling to Memphis. Dr. Conner reported that th e Plaintiff had experienced "no psychotic episodes" since she had begun taking S e ro q u e l. (Tr. 584) III. A L J 's DECISION T h e ALJ followed the required five-step sequence to determine: (1) whether the c la im a n t was engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant had a s e v e r e impairment; (3) if so, whether the impairment (or combination of impairments) m et or equaled an impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P , 20 C.F.R. Part 404; (4) if not, whether the impairment (or combination of impairments) p re v e n te d the claimant from doing past relevant work. If the claimant has sufficient
re sid u a l functional capacity to perform past relevant work, the inquiry ends and benefits a re denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 416.920(a)(4)(iv). In his decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful a c tiv i ty since the onset of her alleged disability, although she had worked part time as a s u b s titu te teacher. (Tr. 28) He found that Plaintiff had severe mental impairments, but th a t her mental impairments did not meet or equal an impairment found in the Appendix 1 L is tin g of Impairments. (Tr. 28) He also found that Plaintiff's subjective allegations w e re not entirely credible. (Tr. 28) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual f u n c tio n a l capacity to perform work-related activities at the semi-skilled level with no ex ertio n al limitations. (Tr. 28) At Step Four of the evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relev an t work as an assembly worker and cashier (Tr. 29), because both jobs were c a te g o riz e d as light and either unskilled or semi-skilled. This finding was supported by th e testimony of a vocational expert. (Tr. 636) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not d isa b led under the meaning of the Act and that she was, accordingly, not entitled to b e n e fits . (Tr. 29) In reaching his decision, the ALJ rejected the opinion of the Plaintiff's general p rac titio n er that the Plaintiff was "not able to return to work now or in the future." (Tr. 4 4 8 ) The ALJ conceded that a treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to "great
w e ig h t," but noted that he was not bound by a treating physician's opinion on the ultimate is s u e , i.e., whether a claimant is disabled. (Tr. 25) He also rejected the opinion because Dr. Conner did not have specialized training in mental impairments, as did Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Morgan. (Tr. 25-26) Finally, he rejected the opinion because he found it contrary to the opinion of Plaintiff's tre a tin g psychiatrist. IV. A N A L Y SIS A. S t a n d a r d of Review
T h is Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining "w h ethe r the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record a s a whole." Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir.2005). "Substantial evidence `is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.'" Chunn v. Barnhart, 397 F.3d 667, 671 (8th C ir. 2005)(quoting McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000)). In reviewing th e record as a whole, the Court must consider evidence that detracts from the C o m m is s io n e r' s decision as well as evidence that supports it. Porch v. Chater, 115 F.3d 5 6 7 , 571 (8th Cir. 1997). B. P la in t iff's Assignment of Error
T h e Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in disregarding the opinion of Dr. Conner, P lain tiff 's primary care physician, who opined that the Plaintiff was "unable to return to
w o rk now or in the future." (Tr. 448) She argues that it was error for the ALJ to d is re g a rd Dr. Conner's opinion because: (1) Dr. Conner was qualified, as a general p ra c titio n e r, to diagnose and treat mental disorders; and (2) Dr. Conner's opinion was not " c o n tra ry to" the opinion of Dr. Morgan, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist. According to th e Plaintiff, Dr. Morgan's findings support Dr. Conner's opinion that the Plaintiff was u n a b le to work. C. D is c u s s io n
It is true that a treating physician's medical opinion is entitled to substantial w e ig h t, but "statements that a claimant could not be gainfully employed are not medical o p in io n s but opinions on the application of the statute, a task assigned solely to the d is c re tio n of the Commissioner." Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1023 (8th Cir. 2 0 0 2 )(c ita tio n s omitted); see also Ellis v. Barnhart, 392 F.3d 988, 994 (8th Cir. 2005) ("A m ed ical source opinion that an applicant is `disabled' or `unable to work,' however, in v o lv e s an issue reserved for the Commissioner and therefore is not the type of `medical o p inion ' to which the Commissioner gives controlling weight."); 20 C.F.R.§ 416.927(e); S o c i a l Security Ruling 96-5p. "Giving controlling weight to [treating physician's] o p in io n s would, in effect, confer upon the treating source the authority to make the d e te rm in a tio n or decision about whether an individual is under a disability, and thus w o u ld be an abdication of the Commissioner's statutory responsibility to determine w h e th e r an individual is disabled." Social Security Ruling 96-5p.
T h e Plaintiff also argues that Dr. Conner's opinion regarding Plaintiff's disability is consistent with that of Dr. Morgan. A careful review of medical records from Dr. M o rg a n , however, indicate that the Plaintiff's medications and treatment were effective. On December 8, 2006, Dr. Morgan noted that the Plaintiff's mood was stable; that th e re was no overt psychotic symptomatology, delusional thinking, or grandiosity; and that her thought processing was "integrated." (Tr. 444) On January 19, 2007, Dr. M o rg a n reported that Plaintiff's mood was stable; there was no psychotic s ym p to m a to lo g y, delusional thinking, or grandiosity. (Tr. 445) Furthermore, he noted th a t Plaintiff was "less vulnerable to day to day stressors," and that her ability to cope w ith normal day-to-day issues was improved. (Tr. 445) After Plaintiff's appointment w ith Dr. Morgan on March 2, 2007, Dr. Morgan's assessment remained unchanged from h is January notes. (Tr. 446) The hearing was held on April 25, 2007, less than six weeks a f te r Plaintiff's March, 2007 appointment. Significantly, at all appointments, Dr. Morgan fo u n d that Plaintiff had a GAF rating consistent with only mild symptoms. (Tr. 445-449) See AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASS'N, DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL OF MENTAL D ISORDERS 32 (4th ed. Text Revision 2000). Furthermore, Dr. Conner's opinion that Plaintiff was disabled is inconsistent with h is own records of Plaintiff's progress. Although Dr. Conner's opinion letter is dated A p ril 25, 2007, he apparently last saw Plaintiff for symptoms of mental illness in July of 2 0 0 6 , shortly after her psychotic break in June 2006. After examining Plaintiff on July
2 8 , 2006, Dr. Conner noted that Plaintiff was feeling much better, and was sleeping b e tte r at night until previous two nights. (Tr. 434) He also noted that the Plaintiff had " n o significant anxiety" at that time. (Tr. 434) T h e re is no doubt that the Plaintiff suffered from anxiety, and the ALJ conceded as m u c h . In fact, the Plaintiff was hospitalized in July of 2006, with a psychotic break. However, since that time, the medical records from both Dr. Conner and Dr. Morgan in d ic a te d that her medications effectively had managed her anxiety disorder, and she had e x p e rie n c ed no other psychotic episodes. "If an impairment can be controlled by tre a tm e n t or medication, it cannot be considered disabling." Brown v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 5 3 5 , 540 (8th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). An ALJ's assessment of a claimant's residual functional capacity is acceptable if it is supported by some medical evidence based upon the ALJ's independent review of the re c o rd . Krogmeier, 294 F.3d at 1024. Furthermore, the assessment of residual functional c a p a c ity is based upon all the evidence in the record, not only the medical evidence. Dykes v. Apfel, 223 F.3d 865, 866-867 (8th Cir. 2000). In this case, the Plaintiff's a c tiv itie s of daily living bolster the finding that Plaintiff is capable of performing light w o rk . A c tiv itie s of daily living should not, standing alone, direct a finding that a Plaintiff is not disabled. See Baumgarten v. Chater, 75 F.3d 366, 369 (8th Cir.1996) (a plaintiff's a b ility to perform light housework and visit with friends "provides little or no support for
th e finding that a claimant can perform full-time competitive work." In this case, h o w e v e r, the Plaintiff's activities of daily living were consistent with the ALJ's findings th a t the Plaintiff retained the ability to perform unskilled and semi-skilled work. O f course, there must be some medical evidence that supports the ALJ's residual f u n c tio n a l capacity finding. Dykes, 223 F.3d at 866-867 In this case, there is ample m e d ic a l evidence to support the finding that the Plaintiff had the residual functional c a p ac ity to perform light work, as set out above. V. C O N C L U SIO N T h e Commissioner's decision in this case was supported by substantial evidence, inclu d ing medical evidence from Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist and her primary care d o c to r. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed, and the case is hereby d is m is s e d with prejudice. D A T E D this 25th day of September, 2008.
___________________________________ U N IT E D STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?