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Bennett v. Colvin

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

September 30, 2016

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Frances Bennett was not disabled, and, thus, not entitled to Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f, or disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.


         Plaintiff, who was born on October 3, 1960, filed her applications for benefits on May 30, 2012, and protectively filed for SSI on June 4, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 15, 2012 (when she was approximately 51 years old), due to anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and liver issues.[1] After Plaintiff's applications were denied at the initial administrative level, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). A video hearing was held on October 7, 2013, and continued on January 13, 2014. Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. By decision dated February 28, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform certain jobs that were available in the national economy, and was therefore not disabled under the Act. Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration was denied on May 19, 2015. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies and the ALJ's decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record. More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Nikole Cronk, Ph.D. Plaintiff also argues that even though the ALJ afforded “great weight” to the opinion of state consulting psychologist, Margaret Sullivan, Ph.D., the ALJ did not properly incorporate all aspects of Dr. Sullivan's opinion into the RFC. Plaintiff asks that the ALJ's decision be reversed and the case remanded for further development of the record.

         Medical Record and Evidentiary Hearing

         The Court adopts Plaintiff's unopposed Statement of Facts (Doc. 12-1), as amended by Defendant (Doc. No. 18-1), along with Defendant's unopposed Statement of Additional Facts (Doc. No. 18-2). These facts, taken together, present a fair and accurate summary of the medical record and testimony at the evidentiary hearing. The Court will discuss specific facts as they are relevant to the parties' arguments. ALJ's Decision (Tr. 10-25)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date, and that she had the severe impairments of anxiety, depression, chest wall pain/fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and obesity, but that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met the requirements for a deemed-disabling impairment listed in the Commissioner's regulations. With respect to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ found that the “Paragraph B criteria” for Listing 12.04 (affective disorders) or Listing 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders) were not met[2]because Plaintiff had only moderate restrictions in activities of daily living; social functioning, and concentration, persistence, and pace; and no episodes of decompensation that lasted for an extended duration (two weeks or more).

         The ALJ then proceeded to assess Plaintiff's RFC and found, as relevant here, that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks requiring no interaction with the public and only occasional interaction with co-workers. The ALJ described Plaintiff's history of anxiety and psychotherapy treatment, noting that her psychotherapy providers thought her pain was a result of anxiety. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff had no inpatient treatment or “substantial break down” during the relevant time period. The ALJ pointed out that from July 23, 2012, when Plaintiff first met with Dr. Cronk, whose treatment in bi-weekly sessions consisted of cognitive behavior therapy and supportive psychotherapy focused on stress management, Plaintiff's mental condition was described as stable and normal with only a few exceptions. The record showed that Plaintiff experienced increased anxiety in response to stressful situations, and that her depression improved and was then stable on Celexa (an antidepressant).

         In sum, the ALJ found that “the medical treatment evidence documented that [Plaintiff's] mental health impairments were not disabling during the relevant period of this claim.” In making her RFC determination, the ALJ accorded “little weight” to Dr. Cronk's Medical Source Statement dated September 13, 2013, in which Dr. Cronk indicated, in check-box format, that Plaintiff's abilities were only “fair” with respect to interacting with the general public, getting along with co-workers, maintaining attention for two hours, sustaining an ordinary routine, working with or near others, traveling to unfamiliar places, and using public transportation. Dr. Cronk further indicated that Plaintiff could not maintain regular attendance or be punctual, complete a normal workday or workweek, or perform at a consistent pace. (Tr. 743-48.) The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Cronk's opinions to the extent they reflected more serious impairments than those accounted for in the ALJ's RFC assessment because such opinions were contradicted by the Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 62[3] that Dr. Cronk diagnosed on the same form; by Plaintiff's ability to function without inpatient mental health treatment; and by Plaintiff's regular church attendance, frequent door-to-door work with her Bible ministry, and Plaintiff's part-time employment (for several months in 2012).

         The ALJ stated that she afforded “great weight” to the mental RFC assessment prepared by nonexamining consultant Dr. Sullivan on August 15, 2012. Dr. Sullivan indicated on the assessment form that Plaintiff's mental impairments caused moderate limitations in ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; complete a normal workday and workweek without interruption from psychologically-based symptoms; perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; interact appropriate with the general public; accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and get along with co-workers or peers. Dr. Sullivan indicated that Plaintiff was not significantly limited in all other work-related activities. (Tr. 99-106.) The ALJ stated that she believed that Dr. Sullivan's assessment was consistent with the evidence.[4]

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's testimony of disabling impairments was “less than fully credible.” First, Plaintiff's own Function Report showed that she could do a wide range of activities in periods when she claimed to be disabled, including going various places three days a week for three to five hours to perform Bible ministry, and then working from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm in her home health services job, in addition to working cleaning houses a few hours a week.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's RFC would not allow her to perform her past work as a cleaner or home health aide. Relying on the testimony of the VE that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national and local economies that a person with Plaintiff's RFC and vocational factors (age, education, and work experience) could perform (garment bagger, garment sorter, ...

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