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Casteel v. Colvin

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

September 19, 2016

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 application of Plaintiff Nicholas Casteel (“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. 9). Because I find the decision denying benefits is supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Procedural Background

         On November 6, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging that he had been unable to work since June 6, 2008, due to dystonia, bipolar disorder, depression, nerve damage in his legs, and short-term memory loss. (Tr. 149-60, 225). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially. (Tr. 90-94). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), and the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act. (Tr. 14-38). On March 2, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 5-10). Plaintiff appealed to this Court, and on March 29, 2013, this Court remanded the case back to the Commissioner for further proceedings, including a re-evaluation of the credibility of Plaintiff's subjective complaints and a re-evaluation of the opinion offered by independent medical examiner Ana Marie Soto, M.D. (Tr. 810-46). On December 4, 2013, following a second hearing, the ALJ again found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act. (Tr. 697-712). On February 25, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the case. (Tr. 682-85). 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.

         II. Factual Background[1]

         At the time of the hearing before the ALJ held on September 24, 2013, Plaintiff was 26 years old and had a tenth-grade education. (Tr. 757-58). He could not remember how long it had been since he last worked. (Tr. 758). Plaintiff testified that he has not stayed at jobs long because he hears voices, because it is hard on him to be around a lot of people, and because he has weakness in his legs. (Tr. 758-59). Plaintiff lived with his mother and was able to do routine household chores; his mother helped him take care of his children. (Tr. 761-62). He testified that he was on several medications and that although they help, he still has problems. (Tr. 759).

         Plaintiff's medical records dated prior to the alleged onset date show a history of dizziness, possible movement disorder, auditory processing disorder, depression, anxiety, cognitive issues, and drug and alcohol abuse. (Tr. 272-283, 317-19). During the alleged disability period, Plaintiff sought treatment for symptoms including anxiety, difficulty focusing, mood swings, difficulty being around people, delusions, hearing voices, paranoia, anger outbursts, difficulty sleeping, dizziness, and alcohol intoxication, and his treatment providers frequently adjusted his medications to try to address these symptoms. (Tr. 363, 561-65, 569, 571-72, 589-90, 593, 635, 639, 1064, 1073, 1075, 1136, 1185, 1148-49, 1235-1270, 1293-1298, 1313-14, 1338-39, 1404-1426). At various times, his treatment providers diagnosed conditions including dystonia, bipolar affective disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, mood disorder not otherwise specified, mood disorder not otherwise specified with psychosis, alcohol abuse, polysubstance dependence, psychosis-alcoholic, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder. (Tr. 364, 540, 561-63, 570-72, 590, 593, 1184-85, 1219, 1235-1270, 1293-1298, 1323, 1339, 1346, 1358, 1404-1426). He was hospitalized for his mental symptoms on several occasions. (Tr. 363, 1185, 1148, 1313, 1339). The most recent records from Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Sridebi Gavirneni, are from July and August 2013 and show diagnoses of major depressive order, generalized anxiety disorder, mood disorder not otherwise specified, alcohol abuse, and rule out cannabis abuse. (Tr. 1419, 1424).

         The record contains several opinions from medical and psychological experts. On January 12, 2009, medical consultant Stanley Hutson, Ph.D., reviewed the record and found Plaintiff moderately limited in the ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; the ability to complete a normal workday; the ability to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting; the ability to travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation; and the ability to set realistic goals or make plans independently of others. (Tr. 514-15). He found that Plaintiff had the ability to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; to respond appropriately to supervisors and co-workers in usual work situations; and to deal with routine changes in the work environment. (Tr. 516).

         On February 18, 2010, clinical psychologist Dr. Joseph M. Long conducted a consultative examination of Plaintiff. (Tr. 538-40). Dr. Long noted that Plaintiff was well groomed, was alert and oriented; correctly completed a Serial 4 addition task and made one error on a Serial 7 subtraction task; had an affect that was flat and constrained with a moderately anxious quality; made little eye contact; and showed no evidence of gross impairment of psychological functioning due to hallucinations, delusional ideation, or extreme emotional lability. (Tr. 538-39). Dr. Long found that Plaintiff had bipolar disorder by history, probable anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse in reported remission, and marijuana abuse. (Tr. 540). He opined that Plaintiff's ability to understand and remember instructions was mildly impaired, his ability to concentrate and persist with tasks was moderately impaired, and his social and adaptive functioning was moderately impaired. (Tr. 540).

         On March 2, 2010, medical consultant Aine Krescheck reviewed the record and found that Plaintiff had mild restriction of activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 552). She found moderate limitations in Plaintiff's ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; the ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; 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 without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; the ability to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; the ability to get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes; and the ability to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. (Tr. 541-42). She opined that Plaintiff “must avoid work involving intense or extensive interpersonal interaction, handling complaints or dissatisfied customers, close proximity to coworkers, close proximity to available controlled substances, multi-step instructions, multi-tasking activities, and public contact.” (Tr. 543). She found Plaintiff capable of one- to two-step repetitive work activities. (Tr. 554).

         On or around October 1, 2010, psychiatrist Dr. Ana Maria Soto conducted an examination of Plaintiff, in two sessions. (Tr. 659-666). Dr. Soto described in detail Plaintiff's medical and social history. (Tr. 660-65). On mental status examination, Dr. Soto found that Plaintiff was overall cooperative but showed signs of distraction; had voices that seemed to be interfering with his answers; showed slow movement and production of speech; had soft, slow, hesitant, monotonous speech; had a mood that was despairing, anxious, depressed, and futile; had an affect that was constricted and almost flat; had a sense of déjà vu; had auditory hallucinations with voices talking to each other; had visual hallucinations; had a thought flow that was at times fragmented; had thought content that revealed a persecutory trend; and had severe problems in concentration. (Tr. 665). Dr. Soto found that Plaintiff's symptoms “have been developing over time, culminating in full-blown schizophrenia with an affective component, primarily depressed.” (Tr. 661). Dr. Soto found Plaintiff was moderately impaired in activities of daily living; was severely impaired in social functioning; and was severely impaired in the ability to complete tasks. (Tr. 663-64). She diagnosed Plaintiff with schizoaffective disorder, depressive type; obsessive compulsive disorder; panic disorder associated with agoraphobia; borderline intellectual function; back pain; history of weakness; dystonic reaction; and possible Parkinson symptomatology. (Tr. 666). In an addendum dated January 21, 2011, she explained the nature of schizophrenia as a disease, explaining that it can involve periods of partial remission. (Tr. 668).

         On May 4, 2012, medical consultant Dr. Robert Cottone, Ph.D., reviewed the medical record and found that Plaintiff could understand, remember, carry out, and persist at simple tasks; make simple work-related judgments; relate adequately to co-workers and supervisors; and adjust adequately to ordinary changes in work routine or setting. However, he also found that Plaintiff must avoid work involving intense or extensive interpersonal interaction; handling complaints or dissatisfied customers; close proximity to co-workers; and close proximity to available controlled substances. (Tr. 1292).

         On September 13, 2013, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Anthony Francis, M.D., testified at the hearing before the ALJ that he had reviewed Plaintiff's records, that most of Plaintiff's issues were psychological, and that Plaintiff could perform at least sedentary work. (Tr. 731-32).

         Also on September 13, 2013, clinical psychologist Dr. James Reid reviewed the record and testified at the hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 734-35). He opined that Plaintiff's impairments equaled Listing 12.09 (substance addiction disorders), Listing 12.04 (depressive syndrome), and Listing 12.06 (anxiety disorders). (Tr. 743). However, he also opined that if Plaintiff were clean and sober, Plaintiff's impairments would not meet or equal any listed impairment. (Tr. 744). Dr. Reid opined that without substance abuse, Plaintiff would be limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with only limited interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors; and would have moderate limitations in the ability to deal with changes in workplace routine. (Tr. 745-46).

         III. Standard for Determining ...

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