United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division
ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
ROBERT E. LARSEN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff James Monroe seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff's application for disability benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to the opinions of plaintiff's treating psychiatrists. For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be granted.
On October 4, 2010, plaintiff applied for disability benefits alleging that he had been disabled since July 1, 2006, later amended to December 31, 2009. Plaintiff's disability stems from bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder. Plaintiff's application was denied on March 25, 2011. On June 14, 2012, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge. On July 2, 2012, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not under a "disability" as defined in the Act. On November 4, 2013, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Therefore, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.
II. STANDARD FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW
Section 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), provides for judicial review of a "final decision" of the Commissioner. The standard for judicial review by the federal district court is whether the decision of the Commissioner was supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Mittlestedt v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847, 850-51 (8th Cir. 2000); Johnson v. Chater, 108 F.3d 178, 179 (8th Cir. 1997); Andler v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1389, 1392 (8th Cir. 1996). The determination of whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence requires review of the entire record, considering the evidence in support of and in opposition to the Commissioner's decision. Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); Thomas v. Sullivan, 876 F.2d 666, 669 (8th Cir. 1989). "The Court must also take into consideration the weight of the evidence in the record and apply a balancing test to evidence which is contradictory." Wilcutts v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 1134, 1136 (8th Cir. 1998) (citing Steadman v. Securities & Exchange Commission, 450 U.S. 91, 99 (1981)).
Substantial evidence means "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. at 401; Jernigan v. Sullivan, 948 F.2d 1070, 1073 n. 5 (8th Cir. 1991). However, the substantial evidence standard presupposes a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts. "[A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision." Id .; Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988).
III. BURDEN OF PROOF AND SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
An individual claiming disability benefits has the burden of proving he is unable to return to past relevant work by reason of a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). If the plaintiff establishes that he is unable to return to past relevant work because of the disability, the burden of persuasion shifts to the Commissioner to establish that there is some other type of substantial gainful activity in the national economy that the plaintiff can perform. Nevland v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 853, 857 (8th Cir. 2000); Brock v. Apfel, 118 F.Supp.2d 974 (W.D. Mo. 2000).
The Social Security Administration has promulgated detailed regulations setting out a sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. These regulations are codified at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1501, et seq. The five-step sequential evaluation process used by the Commissioner is outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and is summarized as follows:
1. Is the claimant performing substantial gainful activity?
2. Does the claimant have a severe impairment or a combination of impairments which significantly limits his ability to do basic work activities?
3. Does the impairment meet or equal a listed impairment in Appendix 1?
4. Does the impairment prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work?
5. Does the impairment prevent the claimant from doing any other work?
IV. THE RECORD
The record consists of the testimony of plaintiff and vocational expert Gary Weimholt, in addition to documentary evidence admitted at the hearing.
A. ADMINISTRATIVE REPORTS
The record contains the following administrative reports: Earnings Record
The record shows that plaintiff earned the following income from 1976 through 2012:
Year Earnings Year Earnings 1976 $ 195.00 1995 $ 25, 956.00 1977 478.26 1996 27, 372.00 1978 1, 308.511997 28, 340.10 1979 1, 300.00 1998 30, 711.00 1980 7, 903.14 1999 31, 487.00 198110, 956.89 2000 32, 945.14 1982 13, 066.00 2001 36, 476.35 1983 14, 142.00 2002 35, 682.86 1984 15, 576.00 2003 36, 472.95 1985 17, 794.00 2004 37, 280.42 1986 19, 896.00 2005 37, 944.72 1987 20, 562.00 2006 22, 517.58 1988 19, 366.35 2007 7, 114.86 1989 18, 670.64 2008 16, 906.66 1990 22, 986.00 2009 1, 823.76 1991 23, 256.00 2010 0.00 1992 23, 256.00 2011 0.00 1993 23, 011.95 2012 0.00 1994 24, 538.00
(Tr. at 202-203).
Function Report - Adult
In a Function Report dated February 21, 2011, plaintiff stated that he watches television, eats, and spends the rest of his day thinking about things he should have done differently or his old job (Tr. at 234). Plaintiff bathes about twice a week, and he wears a hat instead of caring for his hair (Tr. at 235). He cleans for about an hour a week, and he does laundry for about an hour each week (Tr. at 236). Plaintiff cannot go out alone - the anxiety is overwhelming (Tr. at 237). His impairments affect his ability to remember, complete tasks, concentrate, understand, and follow instructions (Tr. at 239).
B. SUMMARY OF MEDICAL RECORDS
On April 13, 2011, plaintiff saw a counselor and was observed to be disheveled with circles under his eyes (Tr. at 553). He appeared fatigued and depressed. His affect was flat with a depressed mood. Speech and thought processes were slow and he was tearful at times. "James continues to verbalize a need to change his life, but has had little motivation to follow through with anything that could enhance his life."
On April 27, 2011, plaintiff saw Ambreen Ahmed, M.D., a psychiatrist (Tr. at 550). Plaintiff reported feeling very depressed and down, he had no motivation, had no energy and was feeling hopeless. She noted that his concentration was low. She continued Lithium (treats mania that is part of bipolar disorder) and Vistaril (treats anxiety) and she added Saphris (an antipsychotic used to treat bipolar disorder). She told him to reduce his dosage of Zoloft (antidepressant).
On April 29, 2011, plaintiff was observed to have a flat and blunted affect with a dysphoric (unhappy), depressed mood. His speech and thought processes were slowed. "He complained of fatigue and stated that he no motivation to do anything."
On May 18, 2011, plaintiff saw Dr. Ahmed (Tr. at 546-548). Plaintiff had no motivation, no energy, low interest. He continued to have depression. His concentration was low. Dr. Ahmed continued his Lithium (treats bipolar disorder) and Vistaril (treats anxiety) and prescribed Seroquel (an antipsychotic used to treat bipolar disorder).
On May 20, 2011, plaintiff was observed to be disheveled and fatigued (Tr. at 545). His mood was flat with a drawn affect. He reported paranoia. "His speech was pressured with slowed thought processes. At times he was almost listless."
On June 3, 2011, plaintiff was observed to be slouching in his chair (Tr. at 544). "He continues to struggle with chronic fatigue." His mood was dysphoric with flat constricted affect. Thought processes were slow and tangential with monotone speech. "James won't go to his grandson's baseball games because the mother-in-law works for the same agency he was fired from."
On June 15, 2011, plaintiff saw Dr. Ahmed (Tr. at 541-543). Plaintiff reported feeling very depressed and down, he said he did not think the medications were working. "He said can't concentrate, if goes out have panic attacks, at home he feels miserable." Plaintiff's interest was low, his motivation was low, his concentration was low. She prescribed Lithium (treats bipolar disorder) and Vistaril (treats anxiety) and she increased his Seroquel (treats bipolar disorder).
That same day Dr. Ahmed completed a Medical Source Statement - Mental (Tr. at 605-606). She found that plaintiff was markedly limited (i.e., resulting in limitations that seriously interfere with the ability to function independently) in the following:
▪ The ability to understand and remember detailed instructions
▪ The ability to carry out detailed instructions
▪ The ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods
▪ The ability to perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances
▪ The ability to sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision
▪ The ability to make simple work-related decisions
▪ The ability to be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions
▪ The ability to travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation
She found that he was extremely limited (i.e., no useful functioning in this category) in the following:
▪ The ability to work in coordination with or proximity to others without being distracted by them
▪ The ability to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an ...