Siguenza v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable James R. Marschewski on March 10, 2014. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
JULIA SUSANNE SIGUENZA
Civil No. 13-5059
CAROLYN W. COLVIN1, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Julia Siguenza, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial
review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner)
denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security
Act (hereinafter “the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). In this judicial review,
the court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to
support the Commissioner’s decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on June 15, 2010, alleging an onset date June 15,
2007, due to fibromyalgia, chronic upper and lower back pain, bipolar disorder, obsessivecompulsive disorder (“OCD”), panic attacks, depression, social anxiety, attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), tic disorder, short-term memory loss, thyroid disease, irritable
bowel syndrome (“IBS”), migraine headaches, insomnia, and fatigue. Tr. 12, 118-121, 131, 143,
147, 148, 171-172, 176, 179. Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and on reconsideration.
Carolyn W. Colvin became the Social Security Commissioner on February 14, 2013. Pursuant to Rule
25(d)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Carolyn W. Colvin has been substituted for Commissioner
Michael J. Astrue as the defendant in this suit.
Tr. 66-70, 73-74. An administrative hearing was held on November 14, 2011. Tr. 32-65.
Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 34 years old , possessed a high school education
and training as a certified nursing assistant. Tr. 26, 37-43, 120, 144-145, 163-170, 180, 185, 186,
192. Plaintiff had past relevant work (“PRW”) experience as a hotel housekeeper. Tr. 26.
On January 18, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder, anxietyrelated disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”) to be severe, but concluded they
did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P,
Regulation No. 4. Tr. 14-16. After partially discrediting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, the
ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
less than the full range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1564(c).
Specifically, the claimant was able to occasionally lift and/or carry 50 pounds,
frequently lift and/or carry 25 pounds, stand and/or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour
workday, sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and push and/or pull consistent with
lifting/carrying limitations. Additionally, the claimant was able to perform
simple routine tasks and have superficial and incidental interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public, where she could work in proximity
to others but could not work in coordination with others to complete job duties.
Tr. 16. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff could perform her PRW as a hotel housekeeper.
Tr. 26-27. With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ also concluded Plaintiff could
perform work as a machine packager, candy spreader, floor waxer, bagger, furit cutter, and
poultry cleaner. Tr. 27.
On January 18, 2013, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s decision. Tr. 16. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this cause of action. This case is before the undersigned by
consent of the parties. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for
decision. ECF Nos. 9, 10.
This court’s role is to determine whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir.
2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind
would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. The ALJ's decision must be
affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d
964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). As long as there is substantial evidence in the record that supports the
Commissioner’s decision, the court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists
in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because the court would have
decided the case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In other
words, if after reviewing the record it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the
evidence and one of those positions represents the findings of the ALJ, the decision of the ALJ
must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000).
It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden
of proving her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one
year and that prevents her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir.2001); see also 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(1)(A),
1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines “physical or mental impairment” as “an impairment that results
from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(3),
1382(3)(c). A plaintiff must show that his or her disability, not simply their impairment, has
lasted for at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner’s regulations require him to apply a five-step sequential evaluation
process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial
gainful activity since filing his claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or
mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal
an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past
relevant work; and, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national
economy given his age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)- (f)(2003).
Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the plaintiff’s age, education, and
work experience in light of his or her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683
F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C .F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
Of particular concern to the undersigned is the ALJ’s RFC determination. RFC is the
most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). A disability
claimant has the burden of establishing his or her RFC. See Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d
731, 737 (8th Cir. 2004). “The ALJ determines a claimant’s RFC based on all relevant evidence
in the record, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the
claimant’s own descriptions of his or her limitations.” Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844
(8th Cir. 2009); see also Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010) (ALJ is responsible
for determining RFC based on all relevant evidence, including medical records, observations of
treating physicians and others, and claimant’s own description of his limitations). Limitations
resulting from symptoms such as pain are also factored into the assessment. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(3). The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that a
“claimant’s residual functional capacity is a medical question.” Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700,
704 (8th Cir. 2001). Therefore, an ALJ’s determination concerning a claimant’s RFC must be
supported by medical evidence that addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the
workplace.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003); see also Jones, 619 F.3d at
971 (RFC finding must be supported by some medical evidence).
In the present case, the record contains two RFC assessments completed by treating
and/or examining sources. Dr. William McCollum has treated Plaintiff for bipolar disorder,
OCD, ADHD, anxiety disorder, and a tic disorder since 2006. In November 2011, he provided
a medical source statement of her ability to do work- related activities. Tr. 375-377. He found
Plaintiff would have marked limitations in the follow areas: ability to understand and remember
complex instructions; ability to make judgments on complex work-related decisions; ability to
respond appropriately to usual work situations; and, ability to respond to changes in the work
setting. Dr. McCollum explained that Plaintiff required multiple explanations, was often
distracted, had been observed crying and distraught on several occasions, and reported having
memory difficulties. He also documented recurrent irritability that affected interactions,
disorganization that resulted in frequent tardiness, and memory problems requiring multiple
explanations. Finally, Dr. McCollum noted that Plaintiff had “insomnia and associated daytime
lethargy” and that she “often appears tired.”
On February 9, 2012, after the ALJ issued her January 2011 opinion, Plaintiff underwent
a mental diagnostic evaluation with Dr. Gene Chambers, a clinical neuropsychologist. Tr.
379-386. Dr. Chambers noted Plaintiff’s extensive psychiatric history and reported that she
experienced both manic and depressive phases, had severe mood swings, had panic attacks and
exhibited obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Tr. 379, 381. He added that Plaintiff experienced
racing thoughts and difficulty sleeping. Tr. 380. Dr. Chambers observed that Plaintiff’s mood
was “slightly elevated”, and that she “did endorse having hallucinatory experiences.” Tr. 381,
383. He also noted that Plaintiff had a history of a suicidal attempt. Tr. 383. Dr. Chambers
diagnosed Plaintiff with bipolar disorder, most recent episode hypomanic; panic disorder with
agoraphobia; and, obsessive- compulsive disorder with a global assessment of functioning score
of 50-60. Dr. Chambers concluded Plaintiff was markedly impaired in her ability to understand
and remember complex instructions; make judgments on complex work-related decisions;
interact with the public, supervisors and co-workers, respond appropriately to usual work
situations; and, respond to changes in the work setting.
Given that both doctors noted marked limitations in the areas of interacting with others,
responding appropriately to work situations, and responding to changes in work setting, we
believe remand is necessary. On remand, the ALJ is directed to specifically address the
assessments of both Drs. McCollum and Chambers, accounting for both in a new opinion.
The ALJ seems to have placed improper weight on a positive drug test in 2010 and the
evidence showing Plaintiff’s periods of improvement. It should be noted that Plaintiff’s positive
drug test for PCP in 2010 could have resulted from her prescription for Lamictal. Glaxo Smith
Kline has published a Product Monograph indicating that Lamictal often results in a false
positive for PCP. Glaxo Smith Kline, Inc., Lamictal, *27, http://www.gsk.ca/english/docs-pdf/
product-monographs/Lamictal.pdf (October 22, 2013). Likewise, the ALJ is reminded that the
evaluation of a mental impairment is often more complicated than the evaluation of a claimed
physical impairment. Andler v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1389, 1393 (8th Cir. 1996). Evidence of
symptom-free periods, which may negate the finding of a physical disability, do not compel a
finding that disability based on a mental disorder has ceased. Id. Mental illness can be
extremely difficult to predict, and remissions are often of “uncertain duration and marked by the
impending possibility of relapse.” Id. Individuals suffering from mental disorders often have
their lives structured to minimize stress and help control their symptoms, indicating that they
may actually be more impaired than their symptoms indicate. Hutsell v. Massanari, 259 F.3d
707, 711 (8th Cir.2001); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P., App. 1, § 12.00(E) (1999). This limited
tolerance for stress is particularly relevant because a claimant’s residual functional capacity is
based on their ability to perform the requisite physical acts day in and day out, in the sometimes
competitive and stressful conditions in which real people work in the real world.” McCoy v.
Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1147 (8th Cir. 1982) (abrogated on other grounds).
Accordingly, we conclude that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial
evidence and should be reversed and remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration
pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
DATED this 10th day of March 2014.
HON. JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI
CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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