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Podgornik v. Colvin

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

April 20, 2015

JILL I. PODGORNIK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AND OPINION AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S FINAL DECISION DENYING BENEFITS

ORTRIE D. SMITH, Senior District Judge.

Pending is Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for disability benefits under Title II. The Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff's arguments in this forum focus on her mental impairments, and the Court's discussion will follow suit. Plaintiff was employed until late September 2011, at which time she was fired for an alleged violation of workplace rules, the nature of which need not be delved into at this juncture. Plaintiff had previously been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and had been taking medication for her condition; however, her condition did not preclude her from working at her last job for six years before she was fired and at other jobs before that. E.g., R. at 32, 132. Shortly after being fired, however, Plaintiff underwent a serious episode of decompensation and was hospitalized on September 29, 2011. While hospitalized - and for a period of time thereafter - she was treated by Dr. Subbu Sarma. Dr. Sarma increased Plaintiff's dosage of Risperdal and Zoloft. R. at 285-86. On October 3, Plaintiff was "a bit less paranoid" and "her suicidal thoughts ha[d] decreased somewhat." Plaintiff and her husband discussed plans to get Plaintiff reinstated, including pursuing remedies with her union. Dr. Sarma maintained Plaintiff's medication. R. at 294. Plaintiff was discharged on October 5, and Dr. Sarma's discharge summary reflects that Plaintiff's mental status was normal, and her medications were maintained. R. at 295-96. Plaintiff returned to Dr. Sarma in early November, and reported that she was "going to have a meeting with her union soon in the hopes that she can get her job back. She would really like to get her job back, but she seems to be prepared that if she does not she will be able to maintain her composure." The symptoms that led to Plaintiff's hospitalization had not returned, and Dr. Sarma wrote that Plaintiff was "doing quite well and I believe she is nearly back to her baseline." R. at 317-18. Plaintiff returned on January 9, 2012, and again Plaintiff reported no problems of any significance. R. at 348.

Less than three weeks later, Plaintiff reported that she was "disorganized.... having trouble cooking and doing other things she used to perform well... has low motivation and trouble with focus. Even small chores are taking her all day, and she is unable to complete them." Relying on Plaintiff's report, Dr. Sarma wrote that "[i]t is somewhat concerning that, even with the stress of the workplace removed, she is functioning only marginally, if that, at home with respect to activities of daily living." He then indicated Plaintiff could not work. R. at 347. The next day, Dr. Sarma wrote a letter for Plaintiff to use in connection with this application for benefits. He intimated that Plaintiff's schizoaffective disorder affected her ability to work even before her hospitalization as evidenced by the fact that she had been able to keep a job for a few years at a time. Setting aside the fact that this may have been a vocational (and not a medical) opinion, the factual predicate is incorrect, as Plaintiff testified she had her last job for six years before she was fired and she held her prior job for almost four years. R. at 32, 132. Regardless, Dr. Sarma's letter continues by averring that Plaintiff remained unable to work since her hospitalization because she had "low energy, depressed mood, paranoia, and problems with attention, concentration, and motivation." He also advised that it was "very possible that the stress of trying to maintain employment may destabilize her and result in increased depression, paranoia, suicidal thinking, and rehospitalization." R. at 350.

Despite the dire change in Plaintiff's condition, Dr. Sarma did not see her again for more than five months. In the interim Plaintiff had obtained a part-time job; at some point she also applied for and obtained unemployment benefits, and while the Record is not clear, this appears to have occurred in this time frame. In any event, on June 6 Dr. Sarma wrote that Plaintiff was "[f]unctioning fair at job" but she described it as a "struggle." She was not reporting depression or paranoia, and he described her mood as stable and her affect as blunted, and he diagnosed Plaintiff as suffering from biopolar disorder without psychotic behavior. R. at 474. On September 9, Plaintiff reported that she was "having some strange periods where her eyes roll up and I am looking at the ceiling', this generally happens at work, she feels impaired when this occurs but has continued her shift albeit with difficulty." Dr. Sarma concludes these episodes "may be anxiety related" and prescribed Xanax; he also opined that Plaintiff could not work more than fourteen hours per week as she was "struggling" with such a schedule. R. at 473. On December 26, Dr. Sarma described Plaintiff as capable of attending to basic activities of daily living and exhibiting no paranoia or psychosis. He also opined that Plaintiff could only work a couple of days a week and only for a couple of hours each day. R. at 472.

Dr. Sarma also completed two Medical Source Statements ("MSS"). The first is intended to establish Plaintiff has a listed impairment, and purports to describe her condition from 1990 to the present (even though Dr. Sarma first saw Plaintiff in 2011). This MSS indicates Plaintiff has marked limitations in her ability to maintain social functioning, concentration, persistence, or pace, suffers from repeated episodes of decompensation of extreme duration, and suffers from depression that manifests in a variety of ways. R. at 462-65.

The second MSS indicates Plaintiff has moderate limitations in her ability to remember locations, work-like procedures and short/simple instructions, work in coordination or proximity with others, and interact with the public. It also reflects that Plaintiff has marked limitations in her ability to:

• understand, remember and carry out detailed instructions,
• maintain attention and concentration,
• perform activities in a schedule or maintain attendance,
• sustain a routine without special supervision,
• make simple work-related decisions,
• complete a normal workday or normal ...

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