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Schultz v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

February 10, 2015

EDWARD SCHULTZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SHIRLEY PADMORE MENSAH, Magistrate Judge.

This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying the application of Plaintiff Edward Schultz ("Plaintiff") for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. (the "Act"). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 7). Because I find the decision denying benefits was not supported by substantial evidence, I will reverse the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application and remand the case for further proceedings.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born in 1970. (Tr. 71). He has some college education in business management, and he has worked in the past as a manager of a video arcade. (Tr. 48-49). From October 2010 to January 2011, he was incarcerated in the St. Charles County Department of Corrections. (Tr. 159-64, 233).

At the hearing before the ALJ on March 5, 2013, Plaintiff testified that he cannot work because he cannot be around people. (Tr. 50). He does not engage in any social activities, does not see friends, does not talk on the phone, spends his days in dark areas, and does not go outside unless he has to go to the doctor. (Tr. 53-55). He has suicidal and homicidal thoughts once or twice a day, but he can calm himself down by taking lithium. (Tr. 55-56). He has had rages that lasted four hours or more, after which he becomes depressed and cannot move for a day or two. (Tr. 56-57). At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff had been on medication consistently for over six months. (Tr. 50-51).

While he was in jail between October 2010 and January 2011, Plaintiff received regular counseling sessions and was frequently found to have an angry or flat mood and a circumstantial thought process. (Tr. 234-239, 247-48). He was also treated for skin cancer while in jail. (Tr. 240-45). Plaintiff was released in January 2011. (Tr. 233). In August 2011, he began seeing a psychologist, David A. Lipsitz, Ph.D., who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. (Tr. 352). Plaintiff continued receiving regular treatment from Dr. Lipsitz through at least early 2013. (Tr. 339-44, 352-53, 355-58, 381-96). In September 2012, Plaintiff began receiving treatment from a psychiatrist, Omar Quadri, M.D. (Tr. 406). Dr. Quadri treated Plaintiff with lithium and other medications through at least early 2013. (Tr. 406-22).

The record contains the following medical opinion evidence: a November 2011 residual functional capacity statement from Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Dr. Lipsitz, who found that Plaintiff had marked restrictions in social functioning and daily living and had poor or no ability to function in numerous areas required for work; an April 2011 psychological evaluation from a consultative examiner, David Peaco, Ph.D., who found that Plaintiff had severely impaired social functioning and a moderately impaired capacity to cope with the world around him (Tr. 257-58); and an April 2011 report from a non-examining consultant, Dr. Robert Cottone, Ph.D., who found that Plaintiff had marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning and mild or moderate limitations in various areas but retained the ability to perform simple and light work away from peers and the public. (Tr. 267-73).

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On January 25, 2011, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging that he had been unable to work since December 28, 2010 due to skin cancer, conflict with his employer, and depression. (Tr. 159-64, 186, 196). His application was initially denied. (Tr. 71). On June 7, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (Tr. 13). On September 21, 2012, Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to August 2, 2011. (Tr. 178). After a hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 11, 2013. (Tr. 13-23, 39-64). Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council on April 26, 2013, but the Council declined to review the case on January 8, 2014 (Tr. 1-3). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

III. STANDARD FOR DETERMINING DISABILITY UNDER THE ACT

To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be "of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in "substantial gainful activity"; if so, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities"; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "listings"). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), which is "the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations." Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that, given the claimant's age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that the ...


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