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Tripp v. Colvin

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

June 10, 2015

TONI L. TRIPP, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



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 applications of Plaintiff Toni L. Tripp ("Plaintiff") for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and 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 supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.


At the hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on January 8, 2013, Plaintiff, a twenty-seven-year-old female, testified that she lived with her fiance and three children, aged seven, six and five. (Tr. 37-38). She has a high school education, but stopped participating in an online college program because of difficulties with the material. (Tr. 39-40).

Plaintiff last worked in January 2008. (Tr. 42). She stated that she ceased working due to a knee injury, which causes her knees to "cave in" or "pop out of joint" if she stands for longer than an hour. (Tr. 42, 47). Plaintiff testified that other factors contributing to her inability to work were her poor comprehension, lack of work experience, poor interpersonal skills, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 42). Her PTSD and anxiety are the result of sexual abuse. (Tr. 43). She reported that, due to her PTSD, she will not go out in public by herself, nor will she stay at home without another adult. (Tr. 43). Plaintiff testified that she panics when in large crowds and has pseudoseizures when her anxiety and stress levels get high. (Tr. 43). She also has difficulties sleeping because of night terrors, for which she takes sleeping medication. (Tr. 56-57). Plaintiff further stated that she suffers from flashbacks that can last for an hour. (Tr. 58).

On a typical day, Plaintiff gets her kids ready for school, which entails bathing them, brushing their hair, dressing them, and feeding them breakfast. (Tr. 51-52). She then goes back to sleep until 11 A.M. (Tr. 51). Later, she does laundry and dishes, cleans the bathrooms, and vacuums twice a week. (Tr. 51). She uses a computer once in a while to check Facebook, email, and her kids' grades. (Tr. 53). When she needs to shop, Plaintiff generally gets a ride from a friend to Wal-Mart and is accompanied by her fiance. (Tr. 53).

Plaintiff's medical records reveal that she was diagnosed with pseudoseizures[1] and PTSD in July 2010. (Tr. 309, 318). She has had four documented pseudoseizures. (Tr. 277, 295, 309, 409). She began seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Bowers, in April 2011; Dr. Bowers diagnosed her with "depressive disorder, not otherwise specified, " PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder. (Tr. 403). Plaintiff saw Dr. Bowers a total of six times between April 2011 and her ALJ hearing. (Tr. 401, 398, 392, 452, 459, 467). Between February 2012 and November 2012, she did not see Dr. Bowers at all, purportedly due to an inability to arrange transportation. (Tr. 45). She also briefly engaged in individual therapy with an intern at the Lighthouse Counseling Center at the end of 2012. (Tr. 45-46, 500). Plaintiff has been prescribed antidepressants since July 2010 (Tr. 311, 294, 403, 393, 454, 460, 468), and sleep medications since April 2011 (Tr. 403, 399, 393, 454, 460, 468).

The record contains a Medical Source Statement ("MSS") from Dr. Bowers, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, in which he opined that Plaintiff has "no useful ability" to deal with the public or work stresses, to maintain attention/concentration, to maintain personal appearance, or to relate predictably in social situations. (Tr. 457-58). The record also contains a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment from Dr. Keith Allen, a non-examining state psychological consultant, who found that Plaintiff was "moderately limited" in her ability to carry out detailed instructions, interact appropriately with the public, and respond appropriately to changes in the work setting, but had no other significant limitations. (Tr. 448-49).


On June 22, 2011, Plaintiff applied for DIB, and on June 27, 2011, Plaintiff applied for SSI. (Tr. 141-48). Plaintiff alleged that she had been unable to work since January 25, 2009 due to a bad knee, seizures, depression, and PTSD. (Tr. 141, 143, 197).[2] Her application was initially denied. (Tr. 75). On November 21, 2011 Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by ALJ. (Tr. 88-89). On January 8, 2013 Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to July 19, 2010. (Tr. 37, 172). After a hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 18, 2013. (Tr. 11-25). On April 15, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. (Tr. 32). The Appeals Council declined to review the case on June 3, 2014. (Tr. 1-7). 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.


To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); 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. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 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. §§ 404.1520(d), 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. §§ 404.1520(e), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 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 final step. McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the ...

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