Christopher v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER..IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed. Signed by District Judge Carol E. Jackson on 9/2/16. (MRS)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
Case No. 1:15-CV-110 (CEJ)
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court for review of an adverse ruling by the Social
Plaintiff Carol Christopher filed applications for disability insurance benefits,
Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401–434, and supplemental security income, Title XVI, 42
U.S.C. §§ 1381–1385, on October 12, 2010, with an alleged onset date of July 1,
After plaintiff’s applications were denied on initial
consideration (Tr. 172–73), she requested a hearing from an Administrative Law
Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 209–15). Plaintiff and counsel appeared for a hearing on July 12,
2012. (Tr. 122–36). The ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff’s applications on
July 25, 2012.
On September 24, 2013, the Appeals Council
reversed the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case back to the ALJ to further
consider plaintiff’s work activity, clarify the severity of plaintiff’s impairments, give
further consideration to the opinion of nurse practitioner Smith, further evaluate
plaintiff’s mental impairments, give further consideration to plaintiff’s maximum
residual functional capacity, and, if warranted, obtain supplemental evidence from a
vocational expert. (Tr. 192–96).
Plaintiff and counsel appeared for a supplemental video hearing in front of an
ALJ on January 8, 2014. (Tr. 137–71). Based on income issues, plaintiff amended
her alleged onset date to November 1, 2011.
The ALJ issued a
decision finding plaintiff not disabled and denying plaintiff’s applications on
February 4, 2014. (Tr. 89–106). The Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for
review on April 10, 2015. (Tr. 1–7). Accordingly, the ALJ’s decision stands as the
Commissioner’s final decision subject to judicial review.
Evidence Before the ALJ
Disability Application Documents
In a Disability Reported completed during an in-person interview on October
12, 2010 (Tr. 430–33), the interviewer noted that plaintiff looked very sad, stated
she had lost 40 pounds in the last year due to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and
left her assembly line job because of an IBS incident. Work History Reports plaintiff
completed indicate that she worked on an assembly line 12 hours a day for one
month in September 2010. This job required her to walk 10 hours a day, stand,
stoop, and handle large objects two hours a day, reach six hours a day, and kneel
half an hour a day.
From March 2008 to August 2010, she worked as a CMT at
nursing, boarding and group homes where she administered and charted
medication, cooked food, cleaned rooms, and showered and dressed clients. From
September 2007 to March 2008, plaintiff worked in retail. (Tr. 419–29, 434–45,
465–75). The heaviest weight she frequently lifted was 10 pounds.
In a Function Report dated October 23, 2010 (Tr. 446–56), plaintiff wrote
that her daily activities included waking up, drinking coffee, using the bathroom,
unemployment office, looking for jobs on a computer, preparing food, watching
television, reading, talking to friends on the phone, visiting her daughter’s house,
and sleeping. Plaintiff did not care for other people, but took care of a pet. Since
the onset of her conditions, plaintiff wrote that she did not know when she might
lose control of her bowels or have an anxiety attack.
Plaintiff did not need
reminders to care for her personal grooming or take medications.
her own meals daily, consisting of canned foods and sandwiches.
household chores included cleaning, laundry, washing dishes, and taking out trash
on a daily or weekly basis. She went outside every day, drove a car, and could go
out alone. Plaintiff shopped for groceries every two weeks for an hour and a half
Plaintiff could independently manage her finances. However, she no longer
had adequate funds to pay her bills since she stopped working full-time. Plaintiff’s
hobbies and interests included reading, watching television, and using a computer.
She wrote that she had concentration problems, however, and did not read as often
as she used to. She watched television daily. For social activities, plaintiff talked
with and visited others. She did not have problems getting along with others, but
was constantly afraid she would have a loss of bowel control or extreme anxiety
and panic attacks. Plaintiff indicated that her conditions affected her memory and
ability to concentrate. She could walk half a mile before needing to rest for fifteen
minutes. Plaintiff could pay attention for fifteen minutes at a time and could follow
recipes. She did not handle stress or changes in routine well and felt like she was
dying when she experienced anxiety attacks.
In an employer questionnaire from Covenant Care Services dated July 3,
2012 (Tr. 508), plaintiff’s supervisor wrote that plaintiff worked as an aide or
personal assistant in a home for individuals with developmental and physical
disabilities. Plaintiff did not need special assistance or adaptations to do her job,
although she had missed a significant amount of work due to hospitalization and
frequent bouts of depression. Some of plaintiff’s clients were very happy with the
services she provided, while others stated that plaintiff had difficulties staying on
She became easily confused when changes were made by her employer.
Plaintiff did not have any physical limitations on her ability to work and worked well
In a letter dated July 4, 2012 (Tr. 486–89), plaintiff’s daughter, Erin Bradley,
wrote that although plaintiff had struggled with depression and anxiety for decades,
her behavior and attitude had changed markedly over the past two years after her
brother’s death. The most noticeable changes had been to her mother’s memory
and concentration. Ms. Bradley wrote that plaintiff had made a medication error at
work and lost her job. Plaintiff also had trouble remembering her past employment
and had forgotten one of her children’s birthdays. Plaintiff had failed to keep up
with her utility bills and her electricity was shut off in June.
Irritable bowel syndrome also exacerbated her mother’s anxiety. Ms. Bradley
expressed disbelief over the amount of weight plaintiff had lost because of IBS and
described plaintiff as “rail thin.” Plaintiff had lost her job at a nursing home when
she had an accident due to IBS on the way to work. Her overall physical stamina
and strength was diminished. When plaintiff took her dogs on a walk recently, she
was unable to walk for more than a few minutes. Previously, plaintiff had been able
to go hiking on more challenging and steep trails at state parks. Plaintiff formerly
could lift people in her line of work, but no longer could lift anything heavier than
groceries. Plaintiff had struggled greatly with grief, depression, and IBS since her
younger brother committed suicide last March. Plaintiff’s daughter felt powerless to
In an employer questionnaire from Genesis Home Care dated December 19,
2013 (Tr. 514), plaintiff’s supervisor wrote that plaintiff worked as a homemaker or
certified nursing assistant at the center.
Plaintiff did not need any special
assistance to do her job, did not have physical limitations on her ability to work,
and did not have any issues with absences. When plaintiff was given instructions,
she needed to have things explained to her a few times, but could complete her
Plaintiff worked 25 hours a week for this employer, per her
Testimony at the Hearings
July 12, 2012 Hearing
At her initial hearing with an ALJ, plaintiff testified that she had an
associate’s degree in English. (Tr. 125). She stopped working full time when she
had a panic attack on July 1, 2010. Plaintiff had trouble focusing and remembering
the residents or their medications. She next worked full-time at Chateau Gerardo
for nine months, but made medication errors and was terminated.
Plaintiff presently worked part-time at Covenant Care as a certified nursing
assistant. She did not think she could work full-time, because she was not strong
enough to lift people and had constant anxiety.
since she was a child.
Plaintiff reported having anxiety
Her mental condition became worse in 2010 because of
stress from work. Quitting her job made her less stressed.
Anxiety caused plaintiff to have irritable bowel syndrome and episodes of
incontinence. (Tr. 128). Anxiety also affected her memory, making it difficult for
her to remember simple things. Plaintiff had anxiety attacks weekly, causing her to
feel doomed and as if she was having a heart attack. These feelings lasted five to
ten minutes and depleted her energy. She sometimes took Xanax if she felt a panic
attack coming, which made her sleepy. Plaintiff also had battled depression since
she was a child. Plaintiff’s son committed suicide in 2011, and since then plaintiff
had become so depressed she was hospitalized a few times. (Tr. 130). Depression
made it difficult for her to get out of bed and function. She felt worthless, guilty,
and depleted of energy.
Plaintiff reported irritable bowel syndrome to be a daily problem for her.
Plaintiff had become incontinent at work once and had to leave and miss work. On
another occasion she had an accident on the way to work and went home.
employer fired her since she did not call in and report her absence.
sometimes had severe pains in her stomach and became constipated.
thought medication she was prescribed caused her to feel faint when she stood up
too quickly. (Tr. 132). She had passed out and fallen on the floor when she woke
up during the night to use the bathroom.
Plaintiff lived in her mother’s house with her brother. Plaintiff took care of
household chores such as doing the dishes and sweeping while her brother did
chores outside. Plaintiff went grocery shopping, but felt overwhelmed in the store
and made impulsive purchases. She used to be sociable and go out with friends,
but now felt nervous around others.
She felt comfortable attending church
services. For hobbies, plaintiff read and watched television, but report difficulties
focusing on either.
January 8, 2014 Hearing
At a subsequent hearing before an ALJ, plaintiff testified that she had been
seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Sabapathypillai, once a month for five or six years. (Tr.
Plaintiff had been hospitalized three times for suicidal thoughts, which
began after her son passed away in March 2011.
Abilify, Lyrica and Xanax for her mental health impairments.
She also took
medication for a diagnosed bipolar disorder. During depressive episodes, plaintiff
felt like she wanted to die and found it difficult to maintain the normal activities of
daily living. (Tr. 151–52). Once a month she did not get out of bed because of
depression. Every day it was difficult for her to focus. She sometimes had racing
thoughts and panic attacks. Twice a month she had hours-long crying spells.
Plaintiff also had had fibromyalgia for more than a decade. (Tr. 153). Her
symptoms from fibromyalgia included back and arm pain and fatigue. She needed
to lie down when she was tired because of fibromyalgia. Plaintiff stated that she
was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome after she had a colonoscopy. Plaintiff
used the restroom approximately ten times a day.
She had accidents once a
month. Stress and anxiety were triggers for her irritable bowel. Driving and filling
out paperwork caused her anxiety. With respect to her memory, plaintiff reported
difficulties recalling addresses, names and phone numbers.
stated that she had anxiety attacks once or twice a week. She would sit down to
calm and collect herself.
Darrell W. Taylor, Ph.D., a vocational expert, provided testimony at the
Dr. Taylor first classified plaintiff’s current position as a home health
attendant and past position as a certified medication technician, as medium
exertional and semi-skilled positions.
The ALJ asked Dr. Taylor to
consider an individual of plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience who is
limited to medium work, simple, routine and repetitive tasks, and is unable to
perform tasks requiring more than superficial interaction with the public or coworkers, meaning that the individual should deal primarily with things instead of
Dr. Taylor opined that such an individual could not perform any of
plaintiff’s past relevant work.
However, such a person could work medium,
unskilled positions as a dishwasher, hand packer, or janitor.
For a second
hypothetical, the ALJ asked Dr. Taylor to further assume the individual was limited
to medium work activity, but capable of performing work at the semi-skilled level.
(Tr. 164). Dr. Taylor testified that such a person could perform plaintiff’s past work
as a home health aide or CMT, in addition to the aforementioned medium, unskilled
On cross-examination, plaintiff’s counsel asked the vocational expert if an
individual who required redirection or retraining from a supervisor once every hour
on a consistent basis would be capable of sustaining full-time work. (Tr. 166). Dr.
representative of supported employment. In response to further questioning from
plaintiff’s counsel, Dr. Taylor testified that an individual who was off-task as little as
15 percent of the day on a regular or ongoing basis would soon result in
termination, as he or she would be unable to meet pace and production
Counsel then asked Dr. Taylor if an individual who required one
additional, unscheduled 15-minute break in addition to already-provided breaks
throughout the day on a consistent and ongoing basis would be able to sustain fulltime work. Dr. Taylor opined that, particularly in the unskilled positions cited, an
individual would not be afforded unscheduled breaks and would be terminated. If
an individual were to miss work twice a month on an ongoing basis, including
during the probationary period, Dr. Taylor stated that such a person could not
sustain full-time work.
With respect to contact with co-workers and others, Dr. Taylor testified that
an individual could work without contact with the public, but would inevitably have
some interaction with co-workers and supervisors. If an individual was limited to
interaction with co-workers for five percent of the day or less, Dr. Taylor opined
that he or she would not have the opportunity to engage in full-time competitive
employment. If an individual needed to be located within a 30-second walk to a
bathroom due to incontinence or IBS, Dr. Taylor testified that facilities may be
close, but the nearest facilities would generally be farther away in unskilled
positions, particularly if the bathroom breaks were unscheduled. With respect to
the “as needed” standard for an employee using the restroom, Dr. Taylor stated
that such an employment condition would result in termination if the employer
viewed the use as an unscheduled break. Finally, counsel inquired as to whether a
person who could lift five pounds occasionally and less than five pounds frequently,
must use the toilet as needed, could sit less than one hour in total or continuously
for less than 15 minutes, and needed to lie down as needed would be able to work.
Dr. Taylor responded that such a person would not be able to maintain competitive
At Heartland Family Physicians on October 28, 2009 (Tr. 526), plaintiff
requested a Xanax1 refill and an increase in her Abilify2 prescription. Plaintiff was
otherwise feeling fine and had less anxiety. Cymbalta3 seemed to be working very
well for her depression. Upon objective examination, plaintiff’s blood pressure was
stable and she had no dizziness or shortness of breath.
The medical provider
increased plaintiff’s Abilify, continued Xanax, and instructed plaintiff to follow up in
On November 10, 2009 (Tr. 551–52), plaintiff requested mental health
services at the VA Outpatient Clinic.
Initial appointments were made with Gary
Helle, L.C.S.W., and Mercy Sabapathypillai, M.D. that day.
It was noted that
plaintiff was prescribed Cymbalta currently, but had tried selective serotonin
reuptake inhibitors in the past, including Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Prozac. Helle
noted that plaintiff reported feeling depressed, had a poor appetite, had difficulty
getting out of bed, and felt some anxiety. (Tr. 586–90). In the past three months,
plaintiff’s depression had caused memory problems, which affected her job
This caused her anxiety and worry.
A mental status examination
Error! Main Document Only.Xanax is indicated for the treatment of panic disorder. See Phys.
Desk Ref. 2655–56 (60th ed. 2006).
Error! Main Document Only.Abilify, or Aripiprazole, is used to treat the symptoms of
schizophrenia. It is also used to treat episodes of mania or mixed episodes in persons with bipolar
disorder or depression when symptoms cannot be controlled by the antidepressant alone.
www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds (last visited on Dec. 17, 2014).
Error! Main Document Only.Cymbalta, or Duloxetine, is used to treat depression and generalized
anxiety disorder; pain and tingling caused by diabetic neuropathy and fibromyalgia.
www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds (last visited on Oct. 27, 2009).
indicated that plaintiff was polite throughout the interview, although somewhat
reserved with a somewhat depressed mood.
Helle diagnosed plaintiff with
recurrent, moderate major depressive disorder and assigned plaintiff a Global
Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score of 65.4
During her first appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai, the psychiatrist noted
that plaintiff’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s, and her brother lived with plaintiff.
(Tr. 581–86). Plaintiff had three adult children and currently worked as a CMT at a
group home in Cape Girardeau. Plaintiff’s depression had worsened recently and
she lost a job at a nursing home because of mistakes she made. Plaintiff stated
that she took her medication every day, but had been overwhelmed and anxious
about recent stressors. She made less money at her new job, and this increased
her fear and anxiety regarding her financial situation. She also stated she had lost
weight recently due to a loss of appetite, feeling overwhelmed, and a depressed
mood. At times, plaintiff preferred to stay in bed because of a loss of interest in
things she previously enjoyed, a lack of concentration and focus, and increasing
guilt about her job situation.
hopeless at times.
She denied suicidal thoughts even though she felt
Plaintiff also had excessive worry about her mother, whose
memory was declining. Plaintiff was the primary caretaker for her mother.
Plaintiff stated that she had been depressed since the age of 21. She was
prescribed medications for her mental health, but quit the medications when she
felt better. Plaintiff stated that she had been hospitalized for bipolar disorder four
years ago, although she did not think she experienced manic or hypomanic
Error! Main Document Only.A GAF of 61–70 corresponds with “Some mild symptoms . . . OR some
difficulty in . . . social, occupational, or school functioning, . . . but generally functioning pretty well,
has some meaningful interpersonal relationships.” American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic &
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition, Text Revision 34 (4th ed. 2000).
Plaintiff denied any attempts of suicide.
She had had one counseling
session when she was married, but currently was not receiving any other
All three of plaintiff’s prior marriages involved emotional or
physical abuse. Plaintiff had served in the Air Force from 1976 to 1981 and had a
positive military experience. She drank alcohol occasionally and smoked one pack
of cigarettes per day. Dr. Sabapathypillai diagnosed plaintiff with recurrent major
depressive disorder without psychotic features, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel
syndrome (IBS). The doctor assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 60,5 added Abilify as
a mood adjunctive treatment for plaintiff’s depression, increased Cymbalta,
discontinued Xanax, and started plaintiff on Klonopin6 as needed for anxiety. The
recommended blood work follow-up.
On December 9, 2009 (Tr. 581), Renee Taylor, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., attempted
to call plaintiff for a depression screen follow-up, but received no answer.
social worker planned to continue to monitor plaintiff and attempt to engage her in
psychotherapy. The next day plaintiff was seen by Dr. Sabapathypillai for a followup visit. (Tr. 578–81). According to plaintiff, she was working at a new job that
she enjoyed more and found more relaxing. However, plaintiff stated that she had
been feeling very restless since her last visit.
When questioned about her
medication, the doctor noted that plaintiff had not been taking Abilify as prescribed.
She had passed out two times after taking a larger dose than prescribed. Because
Error! Main Document Only.A GAF of 51–60 corresponds with “moderate symptoms (e.g., flat
affect and circumstantial speech, occasional panic attacks) OR difficulty in social, occupational or
school functioning (e.g., few friends, conflicts with peers or co-workers).” American Psychiatric
Association, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition, Text Revision 34 (4th
Error! Main Document Only.Clonazepam, or Klonopin, is a benzodiazepine prescribed for
treatment of seizure disorders and panic disorders. See Phys. Desk Ref. 2782 (60th ed. 2006).
plaintiff had not followed the directions on the bottle, she would run out of her
medication soon. Plaintiff felt that Klonopin was not helping her with her anxiety at
She continued to have psychosocial stressors from her mother’s
condition, her job, and finances.
Mental status examination notes indicate that
plaintiff was calm and cooperative at the appointment, had good eye contact and
normal speech, was rocking her legs and turning around while talking, and denied
Dr. Sabapathypillai discussed with plaintiff the relationship
between the higher dose of Abilify and plaintiff’s agitation and restlessness. She
instructed plaintiff to take half the dose of Abilify that she had been taking,
appointment in three months.
Social worker Taylor contacted plaintiff by phone on January 8, 2010. (Tr.
578). Plaintiff reported that she was having no significant problems and felt more
emotionally stable since seeing Dr. Sabapathypillai.
Plaintiff had some anxiety
because she thought she would run out of medications before seeing the doctor
again. The social worker told plaintiff she would walk her through the process of
ordering medication refills by phone.
At plaintiff’s next appointment with Dr.
Sabapathypillai on March 18, 2010 (Tr. 575–77), plaintiff stated that she was
feeling better since her medication adjustment. She had some anxiety over placing
her mother in a nursing home when her mother’s condition had worsened. Plaintiff
had support from her brother at this time.
Per a mental status examination,
plaintiff was calm and cooperative, had good eye contact, a fine mood, and blunted
Dr. Sabapathypillai maintained her original diagnosis and GAF score for
Brief supportive therapy was given to plaintiff regarding the
placement and care of her elderly mother.
The doctor continued plaintiff’s
medications and instructed her to follow up in six months or sooner as needed.
On August 17, 2010, plaintiff received medical care from Susan Joyce Smith,
R.N.P. at the VA Outpatient Clinic for episodes of syncope and collapse. (Tr. 529,
566–74). Plaintiff reported profound feelings of fatigue over the past few months.
She also had lost more than 30 pounds unintentionally and had significant hair loss.
Plaintiff was 5’5’’ and weighed 118 pounds. Plaintiff had smoked cigarettes for 35
years and expressed interest in smoking cessation. Nurse practitioner Smith noted
that plaintiff appeared very tired and fatigued and had dry hair that came out easily
with touch. Plaintiff stated that she was concerned she had leukemia since a family
member had been diagnosed with leukemia. Laboratory studies and a chest x-ray
were ordered. The only abnormalities noted in the lab results were elevated total
cholesterol and low density lipoprotein cholesterol.
The chest x-ray
revealed moderate bilateral hyperaeration with no appreciative active infiltrate,
effusion, or other acute intrathoracic process. (Tr. 532).
At a medication management and brief psychotherapy appointment with Dr.
Sabapathypillai on September 24, 2010 (Tr. 562–64), plaintiff was very shaky and
anxious. She complained of IBS and frequent stools. She stated that she had run
out of Clonazepam weeks ago because of an expired prescription. Since then her
anxiety and bowel movements had worsened. Plaintiff had requested her primary
care doctor to prescribe something for diarrhea, since over-the-counter medication
did not help. The doctor’s mental status examination notes indicate that plaintiff
was in apparent distress, had an obvious tremor, avoided eye contact, was in a
depressed and anxious mood, and denied suicidal ideation.
diagnosed plaintiff with recurrent major depressive disorder and anxiety.
assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 50.7
Because plaintiff felt Clonazepam was not
strong enough, the doctor changed her prescription back to Xanax.
prescribed Bentyl8 for her increase in IBS symptoms.
maintained plaintiff’s other medications and instructed her to follow up in two
Plaintiff saw nurse practitioner Smith on October 18, 2010 for incontinence of
stool on a daily basis. (Tr. 554–55). Plaintiff reported that she was fired from her
job because of sudden incontinence of stool. She did not experience any relief from
Bentyl. Plaintiff was very tearful and anxious about her condition and the future.
Plaintiff stated that Lomotil9 had been effective for her in the past and requested a
Smith noted that plaintiff was crying and appeared
very distressed and fatigued. Plaintiff stated that she had chronic panic attacks and
requested an emergency visit with Dr. Sabapathypillai to discuss her mental health
Smith placed a request for Lomotil for plaintiff and scheduled an
appointment for her with Dr. Sabapathypillai. (Tr. 542–44, 555–57).
In a Physical Medical Source Statement nurse practitioner Smith completed
for plaintiff on December 18, 2010 (Tr. 706–07), she opined that plaintiff could lift
or carry five pounds occasionally and less than five pounds frequently.
could not stand or walk continuously or throughout an eight-hour day with usual
breaks due to gastrointestinal problems. The nurse practitioner wrote that plaintiff
Error! Main Document Only.A GAF of 41–50 corresponds with “serious symptoms OR any serious
impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning.” American Psychiatric Association,
Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition, Text Revision 34 (4th ed. 2000).
Bentyl, or Dicyclomine, is an anticholinergic used to treat the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a684007.html (last visited November 17, 2015).
Lomotil, or Diphenoxylate, is an antidiarrheal agent that decreases bowel activity.
https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a601045.html (last visited November 17, 2015).
could sit continuously at one time for less than fifteen minutes and sit throughout
an eight-hour workday for less than one hour because of her bathroom needs.
Plaintiff could engage in limited pushing and pulling. With respect to postural and
manipulative factors, Smith opined that plaintiff could occasionally climb, balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. Plaintiff could frequently reach, handle, finger, feel,
see, speak and hear. Plaintiff did not require the use of any assistive devices for
ambulation or balance.
As to environmental factors, plaintiff should avoid any
exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, weather, wetness or humidity, dust or
fumes, vibration, hazards and heights. Smith noted that plaintiff’s gastrointestinal
medications may act to sedate her.
Diane Copeland, a social worker at the VA Outpatient Clinic, spoke with
plaintiff on October 19, 2010. (Tr. 553). Plaintiff did not need a referral to a food
bank. Her brother made the mortgage payment on the house. Plaintiff’s car was
paid for and she was able to purchase gas as needed.
Plaintiff’s only expressed
need for assistance was for help paying her power bill. Plaintiff was given contact
information for the Salvation Army. Plaintiff met with Donald J. Scandell, Ph.D., a
clinical psychologist at the Veterans Clinic, for an initial mental health assessment
on November 16, 2010. (Tr. 699–703). Dr. Scandell diagnosed plaintiff with major
depression, work stress, and a GAF score of 50.
The doctor advised plaintiff to
attend a recovery group with social worker Helle to decrease her anxiety and
At an appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai on December 3, 2010 (Tr. 696–
98), plaintiff was well-dressed and in a better mood. Plaintiff had recently started
working as a CMT at a nursing home passing out medication.
The job helped
plaintiff financially, but she felt stressed about learning new job skills.
weighed 104 pounds, was casually dressed, engaged, and very quiet.
Sabapathypillai diagnosed plaintiff with a mood disorder not otherwise specified,
panic disorder without agoraphobia, and a GAF score of 55. The doctor instructed
plaintiff to continue using Cymbalta, Abilify and Xanax, continue therapy, and follow
up in three weeks.
In a Psychiatric Review Technique dated December 21, 2010 (Tr. 596–606),
impairments included recurrent major depressive disorder and anxiety.
plaintiff’s functional limitations, Dr. Brandhorst found that plaintiff had no restriction
in her activities of daily living, mild difficulties maintaining social functioning, mild
difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence or pace, and no repeated
episodes of decompensation.
In her notes, Dr. Brandhorst considered plaintiff’s
allegations partially credible based on the total evidence in the record. With use of
medications, Dr. Brandhorst concluded that plaintiff’s impairments were not severe.
At a routine evaluation with Steven Spence Smith, D.O., on March 8, 2011,
plaintiff asked if she could be given a note saying she was unable to lift. (Tr. 690–
95). However, Dr. Smith found that plaintiff did not have any objective evidence of
skeletal or muscular conditions that would preclude her from doing some light lifting
at her nursing home job. Plaintiff continued to smoke against advice. Dr. Smith
gave plaintiff a note stating she had no restrictions for work and no active physical
problems. She was strongly advised to discontinue smoking, but she did not agree
to participate in any smoking clinics or utilize nicotine replacement.
On March 18, 2011 (Tr. 686–89), plaintiff walked into an appointment with
Dr. Sabapathypillai very depressed and down and avoided eye contact. She burst
into tears stating that her 24-year old son had committed suicide one week earlier.
The doctor allowed plaintiff to be emotional and cry, supporting her through her
Plaintiff expressed guilt over her son’s suicide and worried she would be
unable to return to work that evening.
The doctor agreed to provide plaintiff a
letter for work asking for one week off to receive therapy, counseling, and
medication. Plaintiff had support from a boyfriend and two daughters with whom
she was close.
Dr. Sabapathypillai diagnosed plaintiff with grief, depressive
disorder, panic disorder without agoraphobia, and a GAF score of 45. Plaintiff
agreed to see a therapist for grief and ventilation on Monday and Dr.
Sabapathypillai in one week for reevaluation.
Plaintiff was given a crisis line
number to call in case of emergency.
Plaintiff saw social worker Helle for grief counseling on March 21, 2011. (Tr.
685–86). Her goals included coping with grief and the loss of a child. No suicidal
or homicidal ideation was verbalized. Plaintiff was encouraged to let go of her guilt
over her son’s death. She was supported by her friends, family, and faith that her
son was in a better place.
Plaintiff appeared more at peace as the session
Plaintiff met with social worker Diane Bracamontes for supportive
counseling at the request of Dr. Sabapathypillai on March 22, 2011.
Plaintiff requested another letter to give to her employer to prevent disciplinary
action, which Dr. Sabapathypillai provided. Plaintiff did not want to talk for long
and appeared somewhat relieved after the session concluded. Bracamontes wrote
that plaintiff was going to spend the day with her boyfriend.
Plaintiff was very quiet at her next appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai on
March 25, 2011.
She stated that it was still difficult for her to
continue with daily activities. Plaintiff reported more diarrhea, a lack of appetite,
lost weight, and grief. Mental status examination notes indicate that plaintiff had
psychomotor retardation, avoided eye contact, and had a depressed mood with
Dr. Sabapathypillai diagnosed plaintiff with recurrent major
depressive disorder, bereavement, and assigned a GAF score of 50. Plaintiff was
instructed to continue her medications as prescribed and follow up in one month.
On April 29, 2011 (Tr. 678–81), Dr. Sabapathypillai noted that plaintiff was still
dealing with grief over the loss of her son. Xanax had not helped plaintiff, and she
had hives from anxiety attacks.
Mental status exam notes indicate that plaintiff
was anxious, had avoidant behavior, anxious mood, and appropriate affect.
Sabapathypillai renewed Abilify and Cymbalta for plaintiff, discontinued Xanax,
added Lorazepam10 as needed for anxiety, and encouraged plaintiff to attend
On May 24, 2011, plaintiff went to the walk-in clinic and received medical
attention from nurse practitioner Smith for a swollen upper lip and hives on her legs
and arms. (Tr. 672–78). Plaintiff stated that her blood pressure had been running
low since the death of her son and related stressors. Smith diagnosed plaintiff with
neurotic angioedema and urticaria11 and prescribed plaintiff a Medrol dosepak. If
plaintiff did not improve in 24 hours, she was instructed to go to urgent care for
On July 1, 2011, plaintiff discussed the loss of her son and her
Error! Main Document Only.Ativan is a brand name for Lorazepam and is prescribed to treat
anxiety. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/medmaster/a682053.html (last visited on
Aug. 29, 2007).
Swelling both under and on the surface of the skin.
https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000846.htm (last visited November 17, 2015).
difficulties with the grieving process with Dr. Sabapathypillai. (Tr. 670–72). Many
days she still blamed herself and held onto the tragedy.
Plaintiff was in a
supportive relationship and was trying cope. She had an accident that morning due
Dr. Sabapathypillai diagnosed plaintiff with bereavement and depressive
disorder not otherwise specified and assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 50.
doctor discussed with plaintiff the importance of taking her medication as
prescribed, as well as her dietary habits. Lorazepam helped her, but plaintiff had
not been taking it as prescribed.
On July 14, 2011, a pharmacist reported to a nurse at the Veterans Clinic
that plaintiff was very upset and crying on the phone. (Tr. 668–69). Plaintiff asked
for an appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai, but the doctor was not at the clinic
that day. The nurse tried to convince plaintiff to see a different doctor, but plaintiff
Plaintiff indicated that she was having withdrawals from Cymbalta and
stated she “may just go to the ER so they can give me my medication.” She had
run out of Cymbalta three weeks earlier, but did not have money to get medication
outside the VA clinic.
The pharmacy was able to overnight two days’ supply of
Cymbalta to plaintiff.
Plaintiff denied suicidal ideations.
presented to the emergency department at Southeast Missouri Hospital that day
with complaints of overwhelming anxiety, depression, and vague suicidal thoughts.
(Tr. 729, 782, 955). A psychiatric examination indicated that plaintiff had normal
insight, flat affect, suicidal ideation without a plan, and tearfulness. (Tr. 735–45,
Plaintiff was admitted to the psychiatric unit.
evaluation completed on admission was normal. Cymbalta was not restarted due to
her complaints of it not working and difficulty getting off of it.
diagnosed with a depressed episode of bipolar disorder. She was started on a trial
of Effexor,12 continued on Ativan and Abilify without change, and given Ambien for
insomnia. Plaintiff tolerated the medications well and was able to discuss some of
her recent stressors in supportive psychotherapy.
By July 16 she was stabilized
and ready for discharge. She was assigned GAF scores of 45 on admission and 60
Plaintiff’s next appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai was on August 19, 2011.
Plaintiff stated that she had gone to the emergency room in July
because of depression and not having enough Cymbalta in her system. Since then
she had started a new job that was less stressful and allowed her to enjoy her life.
Plaintiff continued having on and off grief and memories of her deceased son. Dr.
Sabapathypillai diagnosed plaintiff with recently diagnosed bipolar disorder,
bereavement and fibromyalgia.
She assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 50.
doctor continued plaintiff on her discharge medications, including Effexor, Abilify
Plaintiff was advised to see a therapist to discuss her stressors and
On November 18, 2011, plaintiff called a mental health hotline reporting
symptoms of an anxiety attack and an inability to go to work.
Plaintiff was tearful and stated that she was very depressed. At first she denied
suicidal thoughts, but upon questioning admitted to passive suicidal ideation.
Plaintiff agreed to go to a community-based outpatient clinic for medical clearance
to be transferred to an inpatient psychiatric facility. Plaintiff was first assessed by
social worker Helle for medical clearance. (Tr. 649–50). Helle noted that plaintiff
Error! Main Document Only.Effexor, or Venlafaxine, is indicated for the treatment of major
depressive disorder. See Phys. Desk Ref. 3196 (63rd ed. 2009).
appeared tearful and lethargic with restricted affect and depressed mood.
denied suicidal ideation, plan, means, or intent. Her boyfriend was present with her
in the clinic. Plaintiff thereafter went to the Southeast Hospital emergency room by
private vehicle. (Tr. 613–15).
Plaintiff presented to the emergency room with complaints of overwhelming
depression, frustration, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. (Tr. 713–14, 764–65, 937–
concentration, and memory. (Tr. 721–27, 774–80, 947–53). Plaintiff stated that
she felt very deflated, but denied suicidal thoughts or intent. Plaintiff was admitted
to the psychiatric unit in stable condition. Laboratory evaluation was normal, aside
from a urine drug screen positive for cannabis.
Plaintiff was diagnosed with a
current depressed episode of bipolar disorder. Her Effexor and Abilify prescriptions
were increased while Lyrica and Ativan were maintained.
She agreed to attend
groups and receive individual psychotherapy as needed.
(Tr. 717–18, 769–72,
Plaintiff did well with the changes in medication and was ready for
discharge on November 21.
Her GAF score was 45 on admission and 60 on
discharge. Because plaintiff had not been admitted for suicidal ideation, she was
not identified as a high risk for suicide. (Tr. 646).
Plaintiff saw Dr. Sabapathypillai for medication management and brief
psychotherapy on December 16, 2011. (Tr. 642–45). She stated that she had had
anxiety every day and was fearful of making a mistake and being discharged from
Plaintiff reported a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.
Ativan had not helped, plaintiff wanted to discontinue it and restart Xanax.
had complaints of trouble sleeping at times.
Plaintiff was described as having a
very retarded psychomotor and anxiety in mental status exam notes. She denied
Dr. Sabapathypillai diagnosed plaintiff with bipolar disorder,
depression, and anxiety disorder, assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 55, and
prescribed plaintiff Abilify, Venlafaxine, and Xanax.
At a three-month follow-up appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai on March
16, 2012, plaintiff was very anxious, emotional, and tearful. (Tr. 639–42). Plaintiff
stated that the first anniversary of her son’s death was very hard for her. In the
past three weeks, she had lost her job because she made a medication error at the
She had started working through another agency, attending to
elderly people. Plaintiff had a large tattoo of her son’s face on her arm, which she
stated helped her cope. Plaintiff was able to smile a little in between conversation
with the doctor, but continued to be physically ill, depressed, sad, without
motivation, drive, and with poor concentration.
Dr. Sabapathypillai continued
plaintiff’s medications and suggested a follow-up appointment in three months. Lab
test results in March 2012 showed that plaintiff had low vitamin D and slightly
elevated triglycerides. (Tr. 633). A nurse educated her on diet and exercise.
Plaintiff’s mental health treatment notes next resume on June 8, 2012. (Tr.
839, 896). At an appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai, plaintiff was very emotional
and tearful and avoided eye contact. She showed the doctor an entry in her journal
that indicated she was at the end of her rope, hopeless, and wanted to die. Plaintiff
told the doctor that her boyfriend was the only person who supported her, but that
he had been sent to jail. She felt overwhelmed by financial obligations. Plaintiff
had lost weight, was not sleeping, and was depressed and suicidal.
Sabapathypillai assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 40 and suggested plaintiff be
hospitalized for inpatient treatment due to her current instability and safety
Ronald Leckie, D.O. conducted a medical clearance
examination of plaintiff at Southeast Missouri Hospital.
(Tr. 748–61, 921–34).
Plaintiff was oriented, had normal insight, concentration, judgment, memory, flat
affect, and suicidal ideation without a plan. She tested positive for benzodiazepines
Plaintiff was voluntarily admitted for inpatient mental health
treatment at Jefferson Barracks.
The next day, plaintiff told Francis X. Jana, M.D. that she was not suicidal but
did not want to go home. (Tr. 815–25, 872–82). She wanted to talk to a social
worker about her financial situation. Dr. Jana opined that plaintiff was a low suicide
risk. Per a mental status examination, plaintiff was slow, had a soft tone to her
voice, normal thought process, normal concentration, normal orientation, and good
insight to her psychiatric condition.
Plaintiff stated that she was still depressed
from the loss of her son and financial strain weighed heavily on her.
assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 42 and diagnosed plaintiff with bipolar disorder,
anxiety or depression, and persistent bereavement.
quietly in bed, stating, “I’m just tired.”
Plaintiff spent the day lying
(Tr. 814, 871).
In the morning she
received Alprazolam13 for anxiety, which was reported as effective. Plaintiff did not
require any psychotropic medications that evening. On June 10 plaintiff remained
in bed most of the day due to boredom, per her reports.
(Tr. 812, 869).
wanted to go home, but understood the rules. On June 11 plaintiff was discharged
in stable condition without home care services. (Tr. 807–11). She reported feeling
Error! Main Document Only.Alprazolam belongs to the class of medications known as
benzodiazepines and is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.
druginfo/meds/a684001.html (last visited on June 28, 2011).
less depressed and agreed to medication compliance. (Tr. 811, 868). A high risk
for suicide identification flag was placed in her medical chart. (Tr. 862–66). The
lethality of this event was labeled as “low” by her suicide prevention case manager.
(Tr. 803–06, 860–61).
Plaintiff was scheduled for individual therapy and
medication management and would be monitored weekly.
The suicide prevention case manager spoke with plaintiff by phone on June
15, 2012 regarding her recent discharge from Jefferson Barracks. (Tr. 802, 859).
Plaintiff related that she was doing better. Plaintiff was unable to speak for long
since she was at work. She was informed that she had been identified as a high
risk for suicide, but plaintiff denied suicidal ideation.
On June 22, 2012, plaintiff
told Dr. Sabapathypillai that she was doing better since her discharge. (Tr. 799–
Her medication regime had not changed, but plaintiff stated that
she was able to accept and deal with things. Her boyfriend remained in jail and
plaintiff was facing financial difficulties. Her electricity had been shut off, but her
brother was trying to get the service restored. Plaintiff was working currently and
her concentration was better. Mental status exam notes indicate that plaintiff was
in a calm mood, was relaxed and engaged during the interview, had an anxious
affect, and denied suicidal ideation. The doctor assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 50.
Supportive therapy, problem solving and recent stressors were discussed. Plaintiff
would continue Venlafaxine, Xanax, and Abilify as prescribed and follow up in one
On July 9, 2012, Dr. Sabapathypillai completed a Mental Medical Source
Statement for plaintiff. (Tr. 913–17). Dr. Sabapathypillai opined that plaintiff was
markedly limited in her ability to remember locations and work-like procedures, in
addition to understanding and remembering very short and simple instructions.
Plaintiff was extremely limited in her ability to understand and remember detailed
instructions. With respect to plaintiff’s sustained concentration and persistence, Dr.
Sabapathypillai noted that plaintiff was markedly limited in her ability to carry out
very short and simple instructions, maintain attention and concentration for
extended periods, sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, and
make simple work related decisions. Plaintiff was extremely limited in her ability to
carry out detailed instructions, perform activities within a schedule, maintain
regular attendance, be punctual within customary tolerances, and work in
coordination with or proximity to others without being distracted by them. She was
further extremely limited in her ability to complete a normal workday and
workweek without interruption from psychologically based symptoms and to
perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest
With respect to plaintiff’s social interaction abilities, Dr. Sabapathypillai
wrote that plaintiff was extremely limited in her ability to interact appropriately with
the general public, ask simple questions or request assistance, get along with
coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, and
maintain socially appropriate behavior and adhere to basic standards of neatness
and cleanliness. Plaintiff was markedly limited in her ability to accept instructions
and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors. As to plaintiff’s ability to
adapt, Dr. Sabapathypillai noted that plaintiff was markedly limited in her ability to
respond appropriately to changes in the work setting, as well as be aware of normal
hazards and take appropriate precautions.
Plaintiff was extremely limited in her
ability to travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation and set realistic
goals or make plans independently of others. At the bottom of the form, the doctor
wrote that plaintiff had an extreme emotional, mental condition that prevents her
from holding gainful employment.
The suicide prevent case manager contacted plaintiff again on July 20, 2012.
Plaintiff related that she was doing all right and denied suicidal
ideation. She was scheduled to work that afternoon. At her appointment with Dr.
Sabapathypillai on August 3, 2012 (Tr. 1030–33), plaintiff was upset about the
denial of her social security claim and planned to appeal.
She described dizzy
spells, lightheadedness, being sick to her stomach, depression, crying episodes,
memories, and flashbacks.
Mental status exam notes indicate that plaintiff was
very anxious, unhappy about a recent incident, had a depressed mood, appropriate
affect, and denied suicidal ideation. The doctor continued plaintiff on her current
On August 13, 2012, plaintiff reported to Kirit Sutaria, M.D., at the
Veterans Clinic that she felt dizzy and as if she was going to pass out when she
stood up from kneeling or stooping.
around 80 to 90 over 50.
Her blood pressure was
Plaintiff stated she was fasting today.
advised plaintiff to eat a salty diet and drink plenty of fluids.
At a follow up visit for low blood pressure on August 28, 2012 (Tr. 1017–24),
plaintiff reported fainting spells. Her blood pressure in the clinic that day was 79
over 55. Plaintiff was diagnosed with syncope and hypotension. Laboratory testing
was ordered and the nurse practitioner discussed with plaintiff the possibility that
her medications might be triggering hypotension. Plaintiff also was told she would
need to see a gastroenterologist before she would be given Lomotil. On August 30,
2012, plaintiff told her suicide prevention case manager that she was stressed
because her electricity was going to be shut off soon because the electric company
would not work with her on her bill. (Tr. 1017). Plaintiff denied suicidal ideation
even though she faced these stressors. She was offered additional mental health
services, but declined the offer.
Plaintiff only wished to see Dr. Sabapathypillai.
Because plaintiff faced multiple overwhelming psychosocial stressors, the suicide
prevention consultation team continued plaintiff’s suicide patient record flag on
September 13, 2012.
Plaintiff remained flagged due to the
recommendation of her medication provider on October 19, 2012. (Tr. 1012).
After consultation with gastroenterologist Timothy J. Edwards, M.D. for
abdominal pain and diarrhea (Tr. 976–78), plaintiff had a colonoscopy on November
26, 2012. (Tr. 972–75). The colonoscopy showed normal mucosa throughout the
Dr. Edwards advised another colonoscopy in ten years and continued
plaintiff on her prescribed medications. The suicide prevention consultation team
determined that plaintiff was no longer considered to be at a high risk for suicide on
December 7, 2012. (Tr. 1006). Plaintiff had not contacted crisis services and had
denied any suicidal thoughts or plans at her most recent mental health visit.
On December 10, 2012 (Tr. 997–1005), plaintiff told nurse practitioner Smith
that she was concerned about her low blood pressure and constant fatigue. Smith
noted that plaintiff’s recent surveillance colonoscopy was found to be within normal
Plaintiff requested a follow up with Dr. Edwards and to restart Lomotil to
control her diarrhea.
At her next appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai on
December 14, 2012 (Tr. 994–97), plaintiff stated that she recently had been
sleeping anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day. She worked part-time, but was not
motivated and had no energy. She denied any major anxiety. Plaintiff was able to
keep food down and had gained some weight, but requested something to increase
her energy. The doctor discussed various craft ideas and activities with plaintiff to
keep her busy during the winter time.
Mental status exam notes indicate that
plaintiff was dressed well with make-up, had good eye contact, was much calmer,
had a fine mood, appropriate affect, and reported no pain at the visit.
Sabapathypillai assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 55 and gave her a trial of Ritalin to
increase her energy and attention. Plaintiff would continue Venlafaxine, Xanax and
Lyrica as prescribed. Plaintiff claimed to be a non-user of tobacco products. On
January 2, 2013, Dr. Sabapathypillai agreed to increase plaintiff’s dosage of Ritalin
per her request, but warned her to monitor her anxiety. (Tr. 993).
At a psychiatry appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai on March 15, 2013 (Tr.
1092–96), plaintiff stated that the long number of hours she slept each night
caused trouble in her relationship. Plaintiff was working 8 to 12 hours three times a
week as an in-home caretaker.
foreclosure on her home.
death of her son.
Plaintiff was worried about an impending
Plaintiff discussed the recent second anniversary of the
Plaintiff’s current medications included Tramadol, Xanax,
Atropine, Lyrica, Venlafaxine, and Abilify. Plaintiff only took Tramadol once a week.
Dr. Sabapathypillai discussed with plaintiff the effects of medication on sleep and
offered her a sleep study, which she declined. The doctor diagnosed plaintiff with
major depressive disorder, anxiety, fibromyalgia and a GAF score of 55. Plaintiff
was asked to cut back on some of her medications due to the effects of sedation.
Plaintiff declined to engage in behavior therapy, and was asked alternatively to
consider walking or community groups. Her follow up appointment was scheduled
in three months.
Plaintiff saw nurse practitioner Smith in the primary care clinic on April 18,
2013 for continued feelings of fatigue and lethargy. (Tr. 1086–92). On June 27,
2013, plaintiff told Smith that she felt as if she were about to faint. (Tr. 1079–85).
She was noted to have had chronic hypotension for a number of years. Her current
blood pressure was 83 over 57. Plaintiff was given a prescription for Midodrine14
and told to let the clinic know if the medication was effective.
On July 9, 2013,
plaintiff reported that she felt less dizzy since starting Midodrine, but did not
experience increased energy. Plaintiff was advised she could increase her dosage
of Midodrine to see if that helped.
At a medication management appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai on
August 2, 2013, plaintiff shared her journal with the doctor. (Tr. 1069–72). Most
of her notes indicated that she slept about 16 hours a day. She had thoughts about
her son, financial troubles, and relationship issues stemming from financial
problems. Because plaintiff only worked part-time, she was unable to pay all of her
bills. Plaintiff stated that she had no interest or energy. Plaintiff rejected the idea
that Xanax could be contributing to some of her symptoms and felt she needed
more Xanax to calm her nerves. Plaintiff felt fatigued, tired, and concerned about
her low blood pressure.
She declined individual therapy.
advised plaintiff to take Venlafaxine in the evening due to sedation and continue
Abilify and Xanax only as needed.
Plaintiff was instructed to follow up in two
On October 2, 2013, plaintiff was dressed well at her appointment with Dr.
Sabapathypillai in preparation for a job interview that day. (Tr. 1065–68). Plaintiff
Midodrine helps maintain blood pressure by causing arteries to constrict.
http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain-spinal-cord-and-nerve-disorders/autonomic-nervoussystem-disorders/overview-of-the-autonomic-nervous-system (last visited November 17, 2015).
stated that she had been evicted from her home and had moved in with her
Plaintiff had also started a new relationship and gained some weight.
She reported continued anxiety over some factors in her life.
She also reported
Mental status exam notes indicate that plaintiff was
Sabapathypillai assigned plaintiff a GAF score of 56 and continued her medications.
At a follow-up appointment with Dr. Sabapathypillai on November 15, 2013 (Tr.
1054–57), plaintiff described a recent panic attack at her workplace. She started
shaking, had chest tightness, and felt like she was going to die. The attack lasted
approximately ten minutes.
After the incident, plaintiff was drained of energy.
Plaintiff was fearful of having more of these episodes, which prevented her from
driving. Plaintiff was very concerned and felt guilty for not helping her children and
depending on them instead. She admitted to using tobacco products. The doctor
suggested therapy for relaxation and to prevent panic attacks, which plaintiff stated
she would consider.
On February 14, 2014 (Tr. 77), plaintiff complained of a headache due to
starting Prozac and discontinuing Effexor.
Plaintiff was instructed to stop Prozac
and resume Effexor. In a letter from Dr. Sabapathypillai dated March 5, 2014 (Tr.
1105), the doctor wrote that plaintiff declined therapy because of limited time and
Plaintiff had had several suicidal ideations and her mental
health condition started worsening after her son’s suicide. Despite plaintiff’s issues,
she attempted to maintain either full- or part-time work.
opined that plaintiff would not be able to hold gainful employment due to her
mental condition and the medication she took.
The doctor recommended that
plaintiff continue to receive therapy and medication management on an ongoing
basis to manage her psychiatric condition.
Subsequent treatment notes indicate
that plaintiff did not have any risk of suicide. (Tr. 63–65, 69–77). The remaining
medical records presented to the Appeals Council pertain to plaintiff’s smoking
cessation efforts, lab testing, and other routine appointments.
III. The ALJ’s Decision
In the decision dated February 4, 2014, the ALJ made the following findings:
Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security
Act through December 31, 2017.
Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November
1, 2011, the amended alleged onset date of disability.
Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia (FMS),
irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), major depression, anxiety disorder
and bipolar disorder.
Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments
that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work
as defined in 20 C.F.R 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), except that
plaintiff can sit for six of eight hours per day; stand and walk for six of
eight hours per day; lift 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds
frequently; is limited to simple, repetitive work tasks and can have
only superficial contact with the public and coworkers. Plaintiff would
be best suited to working with things rather than people.
Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work.
Plaintiff was born on March 28, 19567 and was 54 years old, which is
defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age, on the
amended alleged disability onset date. Plaintiff subsequently changed
age category to advanced age.
Plaintiff has at least a high school education and is able to
communicate in English.
Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of
disability, because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework
supports a finding that plaintiff is “not disabled,” whether or not
plaintiff has transferable job skills.
Considering plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and residual
functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy that plaintiff can perform.
Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from November 1, 2011, through the date of the ALJ’s
The Court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision “if the decision is not
based on legal error and if there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to
support the conclusion that the claimant was not disabled.”
Long v. Chater, 108
F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance,
but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the
conclusion.” Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002) (quoting Johnson
v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001)). If, after reviewing the record, 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 decision of the Commissioner. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir.
2011) (quotations and citation omitted).
To be entitled to disability benefits, a claimant must prove she is unable to
perform any substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or
mental impairment that would either result in death or which has lasted or could be
expected to last for at least twelve continuous months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D),
(d)(1)(A); Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009).
Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person
is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th
“Each step in the disability determination entails a separate analysis
and legal standard.” Lacroix v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 881, 888 n.3 (8th Cir. 2006).
Steps one through three require the claimant to prove (1) she is not
currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) she suffers from a severe
impairment, and (3) her disability meets or equals a listed impairment. Pate-Fires,
564 F.3d at 942. If the claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its
equivalent, the Commissioner’s analysis proceeds to steps four and five. Id.
APrior to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant=s residual functioning
capacity (>RFC=), which is the most a claimant can do despite her limitations.@
Moore, 572 F.3d at 523 (citing 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1545(a)(1)). “RFC is an
administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual’s medically
determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may
cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her
capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities.” Social Security Ruling
(SSR) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, *2. “[A] claimant’s RFC [is] based on all relevant
evidence, including the medical records, observations by treating physicians and
others, and an individual’s own description of his limitations.” Moore, 572 F.3d at
523 (quotation and citation omitted).
In determining a claimant’s RFC, the ALJ must evaluate the claimant’s
Wagner v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 842, 851 (8th Cir. 2007); Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2002). This evaluation requires that the
ALJ consider “(1) the claimant’s daily activities; (2) the duration, intensity, and
frequency of the pain; (3) the precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) the
restrictions; (6) the claimant’s work history; and (7) the absence of objective
medical evidence to support the claimant’s complaints.” Buckner, 646 F.3d at 558
(quotation and citation omitted). “Although ‘an ALJ may not discount a claimant’s
allegations of disabling pain solely because the objective medical evidence does not
fully support them,’ the ALJ may find that these allegations are not credible ‘if there
are inconsistencies in the evidence as a whole.’” Id. (quoting Goff v. Barnhart, 421
F.3d 785, 792 (8th Cir. 2005)). After considering the seven factors, the ALJ must
make express credibility determinations and set forth the inconsistencies in the
record which caused the ALJ to reject the claimant’s complaints.
Singh v. Apfel,
222 F.3d 448, 452 (8th Cir. 2000); Beckley v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 1056, 1059 (8th Cir.
At step four, the ALJ determines whether a claimant can return to her past
relevant work, “review[ing] [the claimant’s] [RFC] and the physical and mental
demands of the work [claimant has] done in the past.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
The burden at step four remains with the claimant to prove her RFC and establish
that she cannot return to her past relevant work. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523; accord
Dukes v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2006); Vandenboom v. Barnhart,
421 F.3d 745, 750 (8th Cir. 2005).
If the ALJ holds at step four of the process that a claimant cannot return to
past relevant work, the burden shifts at step five to the Commissioner to establish
that the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs within
the national economy.
Banks v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 820, 824 (8th Cir. 2001).
See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
If the claimant is prevented by her impairment from doing any other work,
the ALJ will find the claimant to be disabled.
In arguing for reversal or remand, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to
give good reasons for giving little weight to the opinion of treating psychiatrist Dr.
Sabapathypillai. Additionally, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ’s RFC determination is
not supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Dr. Sabapathypillai’s Opinion
Dr. Sabapathypillai completed a Mental Medical Source Statement for plaintiff
on July 9, 2012. (Tr. 913–17). The doctor opined that plaintiff was markedly or
extremely limited in every category of functioning. The ALJ gave little weight to Dr.
Sabapathypillai’s opinion, finding that the extreme limitations recorded in her
opinion were not consistent with the medical evidence in the record, including the
doctor’s own treatment notes. (Tr. 99). The ALJ also stated that because plaintiff
testified that Dr. Sabapathypillai did not know she was working part-time on a
sustained basis, the doctor did not have all of the information needed for a full
A treating source’s opinion is not “inherently entitled” to controlling weight.
Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 937 (8th Cir. 2006) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
“Generally, ‘[a] treating physician’s opinion is due controlling
weight if that opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical or
laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial
evidence in the record.’”
Brown v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 535, 540 (8th Cir. 2004)
(quoting Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 961 (8th Cir. 2001)). However, “[a]n ALJ
may ‘discount or even disregard the opinion of a treating physician where other
medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence,
or where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the
credibility of such opinions.’” Goff, 421 F.3d at 790 (quoting Prosch v. Apfel, 201
F.3d 1010, 1013 (8th Cir. 2000)); see also Myers v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 521, 525 (8th
Cir. 2013) (“Because the regulations only accord [controlling] weight to source
opinions if they are not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence, we have
upheld an ALJ’s decision to discount a treating physician’s opinions where those
opinions were internally inconsistent and where the physician’s opinion was
inconsistent with the claimant’s own testimony.”) (internal quotations and citations
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to identify the inconsistencies between
Dr. Sabapathypillai’s opinion and the medical evidence in the record. However, the
ALJ noted plaintiff’s brief hospitalizations for depression and suicidal ideation after
the alleged onset date in the record. In each hospitalization, plaintiff’s medications
were adjusted and she was treated with therapy. On each occasion, plaintiff was
discharged in stable condition after three days and was referred to outpatient
(Tr. 764, 856).
Plaintiff’s assigned GAF scores improved 15 points
between admission and discharge with respect to the November 2011 inpatient
treatment. (Tr. 764). Her three-day hospitalization in July 2011 was substantially
The ALJ found that plaintiff’s marked increase in functioning
indicated that, when complied with, plaintiff’s mood fluctuations were responsive to
medications and therapy. (Tr. 98); see Hutton v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 651, 655 (8th
Cir. 1999) (“Impairments that are controllable or amendable to treatment do not
support a finding of total disability.”).
Additionally, the ALJ noted that throughout the relevant period, plaintiff has
maintained part-time competitive employment near-substantial gainful activity
levels. (Tr. 99). This consistent employment, the ALJ found, is inconsistent with
allegations of severe and constant restrictions on plaintiff’s daily functions.
Browning v. Sullivan, 958 F.2d 817, 821 (8th Cir. 1992) (stating that the ALJ’s
finding that plaintiff had worked for several years despite complaining of pain she
now claimed disabling demonstrated inconsistency in the record). Her GAF scores
ranged between 45 and 60, with most reflecting moderate limitations in function
rather than the marked and extreme limitations opined by Dr. Sabapathypillai.
Most of the GAF scores at or below 50 were given before her alleged onset date of
disability, during which she maintained substantial gainful work activity. See Orrick
v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 368, 370 (8th Cir. 1992) (affirming the ALJ’s decision when a
plaintiff continued to work for a period of years despite alleged worsening of her
conditions); Stickle v. Astrue, No. 08-00787-CV-W-NKL-SSA, 2009 WL 1616602, at
*5 (W.D. Mo. June 9, 2009) (“Where an individual has worked with an impairment
over a period of years, absent significant deterioration, it cannot be considered
disabling at present.”).
As of October 2013, plaintiff was dressing well and actively seeking work in
the community, had started a new relationship, and was assigned a GAF score of
The record indicates that plaintiff’s extreme episodes of
depression and grief and lower GAF scores were related to her son’s suicide and
situational stressors such as her boyfriend being in jail and financial problems.
Those episodes of severe depression were relatively short-lived, and the ALJ drew
the overall impression from the evidence that plaintiff had moderate mental
limitations and could sustain work that was not detailed or complex and did not
require substantial social contact.
As such, substantial evidence in the record
supports the ALJ’s finding of inconsistency and determination to afford little weight
to Dr. Sabapathypillai’s opinion. See Bradley v. Astrue, 528 F.3d 1113, 1115 (8th
Cir. 2008) (“We will not disturb the denial of benefits so long as the ALJ’s decision
falls within the available zone of choice.”) (internal quotations omitted); Reutter ex
rel. Reutter v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 946, 950 (8th Cir. 2004) (“Substantial evidence
is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it
adequate to support the decision.”).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ misunderstood her testimony regarding Dr.
Sabapathypillai’s knowledge of her work status and no evidence suggests that Dr.
Sabapathypillai was unaware that plaintiff worked part-time on a sustained basis
since the alleged onset date of disability.
The Commissioner responds that the
record was unclear as to whether Dr. Sabapathypillai understood or was aware that
plaintiff had been working part-time on a sustained basis.
In either event,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Dr. Sabapathypillai’s
opinion was inconsistent with the medical evidence in the record as a whole and
plaintiff’s daily level of functioning.
See Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 794
(8th Cir. 2012) (affirming the ALJ’s determination to afford minimal weight to a
treating physician when the doctor expressed significant limitations in his
evaluation that were not reflected in any treatment notes or medical records and
were inconsistent with the limitations plaintiff actually exhibited in her daily living);
Tellez v. Barnhart, 403 F.3d 953, 956 (8th Cir. 2005) (“[T]he reports of her actual
behavior in the workplace were clearly at odds with the extreme limitations
described by her psychiatrist and nurse practitioner.”); see also Goff, 421 F.3d at
790–91 (“[A]n appropriate finding of inconsistency with other evidence alone is
sufficient to discount the [treating physician’s] opinion.”).
The RFC Determination
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by
substantial evidence in the record. By giving little weight to Dr. Sabapathypillai’s
opinion, plaintiff argues, no other evidence remains that addresses her mental,
work-related, functional impairments for an RFC assessment. However, while the
ALJ gave Dr. Sabapathypillai’s little weight, he did not discount the doctor’s opinion
entirely. Cf. Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 969 (8th Cir. 2010) (“[T]he ALJ was
not obligated to include limitations from opinions he properly disregarded.”).
Rather, the ALJ’s finding that plaintiff had moderate limitations which allowed her to
engage in simple, repetitive work tasks with only superficial contact with the public
and co-workers is supported by Dr. Sabapathypillai’s treatment notes and GAF
(Tr. 660–64, 713–14, 799–801, 994–97, 1065–68, 1092–96).
considering the severity of plaintiff’s alleged mental impairments for the RFC
determination, the ALJ deemed plaintiff’s statements partially credible.
The ALJ noted that plaintiff had no significant problems with overall social
functioning, but her anxiety symptoms would probably cause some difficulty dealing
with the public and strangers. (Tr. 95). With respect to plaintiff’s concentration,
persistence and pace, the ALJ found plaintiff’s anxiety attacks and depressed mood
reduced her ability to concentrate and think to a moderate degree that allowed
plaintiff to perform simple tasks on a sustained basis. (Tr. 96).
After reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, the ALJ found that
plaintiff’s episodes of severe depression were relatively short-lived and plaintiff had
moderate mental limitations that allowed her to sustain work that was not detailed
or complex and did not require substantial social contact.
limitations are consistent with the RFC assessment and substantial evidence in the
record. As such, the ALJ’s RFC determination was properly based upon plaintiff’s
credible allegations, some weight to the medical opinion, and other evidence in the
See McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000) (“The
Commissioner must determine a claimant’s RFC based on all the relevant evidence,
including the medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and
an individual’s own description of his limitations.”).
For the reasons discussed above, the Court finds that the Commissioner’s
decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner is
CAROL E. JACKSON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated this 2nd day of September, 2016.
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