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Sommers v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division

September 17, 2014

JOANN SOMMERS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

NANETTE K. LAUGHREY, District Judge.

Joann Sommers appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits under 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 401-434. The Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

I. Background

Sommers was born in 1958 and is a high school graduate. She worked for the U.S. Postal Service for about 25 years. In 1995, while she was working for the Postal Service, a former postal employee robbed a branch of Sommers' post office and murdered four people, including two of Sommers' coworkers. Sommers was not present but suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after the event. Sommers testified that she took a disability retirement from the Postal Service in August 2008, because she was physically unable to perform the job duties, including lifting the bags and trays of mail, and being unable to stand or sit for any length of time, and because she was having nightmares and could not sleep. She said the Postal Service was "not willing to give [her] light duty any more." Tr. 37. She has not worked since then.

Sommers claims disability due to fibromyalgia, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, emphysema, asthma, and carpal tunnel syndrome for the period July 1, 2010[1] through December 31, 2011. The ALJ concluded that during the relevant time frame, Sommers had severe impairments of fibromyalgia syndrome, depression, anxiety disorder, pain disorder, history of polysubstance abuse, right shoulder bursitis, left knee degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease, and obesity. Tr. 14.

Sommers' primary care physician, Dr. Estrellita Villazor, saw Sommers from February 2003 to August 2007. Dr. Villazor diagnosed Sommers with anxiety and depression in 2003 and 2004, and in 2004 prescribed Zoloft. In 2003, the doctor limited Sommers to no lifting over ten pounds. In 2004, an MRI of Sommers' right shoulder showed bursitis and torn cartilage. In 2007, the doctor noted Sommers had "rheumatoid" issues. Tr. 373. Studies of Sommers' spine, knees, hands and ankles by x-ray and MRI showed mild or negative findings, and there was no history of injury. In December 2007, Dr. Villazor filled out a form Medical Source Statement of Claimant's Ability to Perform Work-Related Physical Activities (the MSSP). Dr. Villazor opined that Sommers was limited to lifting and carrying no more than two to three pounds, one hour of standing and walking, and four hours of sitting per day. The doctor also indicated that Sommers was limited to occasional bending, kneeling, stooping, crouching, balancing, and climbing, and that reaching, handling, and fingering were limited, but did not specify to what extent. The doctor indicated that the restrictions producing the restrictions were "low back pain; shoulder and wrist pain; [and] severe depression." Tr. 446-447.

In 2013, Sommers began receiving treatment at the Jordan Valley Community Health Center. Her doctor noted difficulty with attention and concentration, as well as anhedonia, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness. She was diagnosed with depression, PTSD, and myalgia and myositis, and prescribed Zoloft.

Sommers has been evaluated by several consultative examiners. In March 2010, she was evaluated for psychological functioning by Samuel Hester, Ph. D. He noted she had had no therapy or treatment since 2009. She had some tearfulness and depressed and anxious mood, secondary to the death of her spouse, and was alert and oriented to all spheres. Dr. Hester concluded she was capable of adequate activities of daily living and could communicate adequately, maintain concentration, persistence and pace, but would have difficulty with tasks involving a lot of walking. She was diagnosed with depression, PTSD, pain disorder with physical and psychological factors and amphetamine dependence in full-sustained remission. Dr. Hester assigned a GAF score of 45-50, suggesting serious symptoms, but the ALJ concluded the GAF estimate was internally inconsistent with the overall conclusions of the evaluation, and Dr. Hester's findings suggested moderate rather than marked limitations. Accordingly, the ALJ gave the GAF estimate limited weight.

In April 2010, Sommers was seen by consulting examiner Michael Spataro, M.D., who noted low back pain and depression with fibromyalgia and arthritis. She had full range of motion in all extremities, and could walk short distances without the cane or braces she had been using, which Dr. Spataro noted were not medically necessary. Dr. Spartaro, who opined that Sommers was capable of sitting, standing and walking for a full workday, could lift and carry without significant limitations and was able to respond to questions, carry on a conversation and could remember and carry out instructions. The ALJ found Dr. Spataro's opinion consistent with the medical evidence of record and gave it significant weight.

In June 2011, Sommers was evaluated for physical and psychological functioning by consultative examiner Mark Johnston, M.D. The doctor noted that Sommers had a 20-year history of Lyme Disease, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. He noted a history of bilateral carpal tunnel repairs. Sommers claimed daily discomfort and pain in multiple joints including the low back, ankles knees, elbows and hands. The doctor found Sommers' gait normal and that she did not need the cane she carried. He found most of the physical examination normal, though Sommers could not heel or toe walk. There were nine of 18 tender points of fibromyalgia, and Sommers had no muscle atrophy anywhere. Her handgrip strength was 5/5 and straight leg raising was negative on both sides. Dr. Johnston considered her progress to be fair. He noted moderate restrictions on reaching, pushing and pulling with the right upper extremity as a result of shoulder pain, and that the Sommers could not reach overhead at all with the right arm. Dr. Johnston also concluded that she should also avoid pulmonary irritants, secondary to allegations of asthma and emphysema. The ALJ gave Dr. Johnston's opinion some weight.

In July 2011, Solmmers was evaluated for psychological functioning by consultative examiner Leslie Halprin, Ph. D. Dr. Halprin noted the presence of mood depression as a result of pain issues, with some crying spells and suicidal thoughts with neither intent nor plan. Sommers had no thought disorders, had intact insight and judgment, a dysthymic mood, and no significant interference with daily function. She was diagnosed with adjustment disorder; depressed mood, which was moderate and chronic; and substance dependence in full-sustained remission. The doctor provided no GAF assessment, and determined that there were no significant deficits of function based on psychological impairments. Dr. Halprin found Sommers was able to follow simple tasks and some complex tasks, maintain attention and concentration, maintain a schedule, relate adequately with others, and deal with her stressors. The ALJ found Dr. Halprin's conclusions to be supported by Dr. Helprin's report and consistent with the other evidence of record, and that they warranted some deference.

Sommers was evaluated for psychological functioning in August 2011, in a psychiatric review technique form (PRT) statement by L. Hoffman, Ph. D. The doctor found non-severe or mild limitations, which the ALJ gave little weight, in view of Sommers' testimony and the opinions of the consultative examiners who actually saw and evaluated Sommers. The ALJ rejected the April 2012 opinion of Heather Mesker, a DDS counselor who determined none of Sommers' psychological or physical limitations was disabling, because Mesker is a lay decision-maker.

At the July 2103 hearing, Sommers testified that she has anxiety attacks and depression, which cause her not to sleep or socialize. She testified that she "can't comprehend anything, [or] think straight." Tr. 39. She tries to accomplish one thing around the house each day, such as laundry or vacuuming. She tries to cook, but cannot lift heavy pots. She may go out once a month with her boyfriend, to eat or to see a free movie in the park, but does not stay out long because she needs to sit and rest. Her boyfriend goes grocery shopping with her and lifts bags out of the cart. She began receiving treatment at the Jordan Valley health center in 2013, and takes Zoloft, Gabapentin, and Tizandine. She testified that a noticeable side effect of the medications is that she "gets very tired... within the hour after taking them" and she "[has] to lay down" for "[a]bout two hours." Tr. 42. The last time she saw a mental health professional was around 2007, before she left the Postal Service. She testified that she has pain all the time, and cannot walk more than one block, stand more than 15 or 20 minutes, sit more than 30 minutes, raise her arms above shoulder height, or lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk. She coupons and uses the computer for about two hours every day to keep up with family. She rode the bus for 30 hours to come to attend the hearing.

With respect to residual functional capacity, the ALJ concluded Sommers could perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that she could only sit for six of eight hours per day, 2 hours at a time, and stand and walk for six of eight hours per day, 2 hours at a time; could lift 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; could not climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; could occasionally climb stairs and ramps, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; and had to avoid concentrated exposure to extremes of temperature, vibrations or pulmonary irritants. The ALJ further concluded Sommers could not be placed in high stress work, such as work requiring fast paced activity, or strict and explicit quotas, deadlines or schedules, or frequent or unusual changes in work setting; that she was unable to sustain a high level of concentration, such as sustained attention to detail, but could sustain a simple routine, or simple repetitive tasks; and that she should not have to work with close personal interactions with co-workers or supervisors, no required public contact and no work above shoulder level.

The Vocational Expert opined that although Sommers could not perform her prior work, she could perform light, unskilled jobs such as bench assembler, bakery line worker, and cleaner, jobs ...


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