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Pond v. Berryhill

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

November 6, 2017

DEBRA POND, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1] , Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This action is before me for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) finding that Plaintiff Debra Pond (“Plaintiff” or “Pond”) was not disabled, and, thus, not entitled to disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. For the reasons set forth below, I will reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         Pond was born on October 14, 1952. She filed an application for disability insurance benefits on November 2, 2012. Pond alleged a disability onset date of March 15, 2012. Pond alleged that she suffers from several physical and mental impairments, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, affective disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and obesity.[2] The Commissioner initially denied Pond benefits on March 7, 2013. She requested a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Michael Comisky (the “ALJ”), which was held on May 27, 2015. At the hearing, Pond and a vocational expert testified. The ALJ issued a decision on June 29, 2015, which concluded that Pond was not disabled under the Act because she possessed the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform relevant work. The ALJ's decision is summarized in greater detail below. Pond requested a review with the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied on August 31, 2016. Pond has exhausted all of her administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision is final for review purposes.

         Pond filed this action in order to seek a reversal of the Commissioner's decision and remand for a new administrative hearing. Pond argues that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. In particular, Pond asserts that the ALJ erroneously failed to derive a proper mental RFC by making inconsistent findings, improperly relying upon the outdated opinion of a non-examining State agency consultant, and failing to provide a sufficient narrative statement.

         a. Medical Record and Evidentiary Hearing

         I adopt Plaintiff's uncontroverted Statement of Material Facts (Doc. 15-1), as amended by Defendant's Response (Doc. No. 20-1), along with Defendant's Additional Statement of Facts (Doc. No. 20-2) and Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Additional Statement of Material Facts (Doc. No. 21-1). These facts, taken together, present a fair and accurate summary of the medical record and testimony at the evidentiary hearing. I will discuss specific facts as they are relevant to the parties' arguments.

         b. ALJ Decision

         The ALJ concluded that Pond was not disabled. To begin, the ALJ found that Pond meets the insured status requirements under the Act and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. At step two, regarding whether Pond has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the ALJ held that Pond has the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis of the right thumb joint, affective disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”), and obesity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The ALJ also found that Pond has impairments of hypertension and cardiac arterial disease, which he classified as insufficiently severe to constitute disabling impairments.

         At step three, the ALJ declined to find that Pond's impairments met or are equal to one of the enumerated deemed-disabling impairments under the regulations and Psychiatric Review Technique (“PRT”). The ALJ held that Pond's mental impairments (i.e. the affective and obsessive-compulsive disorders) failed to satisfy the “Paragraph B” and “Paragraph C” criteria under Listings 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), 12.08 (personality disorders), and 12.09 (substance addiction disorders). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App. 1. In his PRT analysis, the ALJ noted Pond's abilities to reside alone, meet her personal care and grooming needs, perform chores and tasks, care for her mother, manage finances, drive, and have positive interactions with treatment providers. The ALJ also found that Pond experienced only one or two episodes of decompensation which were of an extended duration. With respect to social functioning, the ALJ stated that Pond could have frequent contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. Based upon these observations, the ALJ concluded that Pond had only a mild restriction in her ability to engage in activities of daily living and no more than mild limitations with respect to social functioning, and concentration, persistence, and pace. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Pond's mental limitations were not severe enough to qualify as disabling under the PRT analysis.[3]

         Next, the ALJ found that Pond has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work.[4] The ALJ asserted that Pond can lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand, walk, or sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday, and push or pull within the lifting and carrying limits. Overall, the ALJ concluded that the medical evidence did not support Pond's allegations - Pond's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely credible. The ALJ determined that Pond can have frequent contact with coworkers, supervisors and the general public. The ALJ discussed aspects of Pond's history of physical and mental impairments. In analyzing Pond's mental issues, the ALJ noted Pond's prior inpatient treatment for depression with suicidal ideation, one of her suicide attempts, and ongoing suicidal ideation and difficulties with OCD. While the ALJ acknowledged that Pond had suffered “two acute exacerbations” of her mental impairments since the alleged onset date, the ALJ linked her symptoms to periods of unusual stress and found that Pond's mental status was otherwise normal and “generally well-controlled with psychotropic medications.” Considering Pond's employment history, the ALJ determined that the record did not document any worsening or onset of new impairments at the alleged disability onset date. The ALJ noted that Pond continued working after the alleged onset date and concluded that she stopped working for non-disability reasons, including taking early retirement through Social Security in December 2014.

         The ALJ addressed opinion evidence from two non-examining state agency consultants and one treating physician. The ALJ gave “significant weight” to the opinions of non-examining state agency consultants Denise R. Trowbridge, M.D. and psychologist Keith L. Allen, Ph.D. The ALJ asserted that these consultants provided detailed narratives, based upon a comprehensive review of the record. Although some evidence was added to the record after the state agency consultants prepared their opinions, the ALJ reasoned that the new evidence was generally cumulative. The ALJ opined that the “only significant changes” concerned certain physical, rather than mental, impairments. The ALJ gave no weight to the Medical Source Statement prepared by Pond's treating physician W. Alex Dymek, M.D. The ALJ reasoned that Dr. Dymek's opinion was not supported by the evidence of record, was inconsistent with the doctor's treatment recommendations, and was presented in a checkbox format. Additionally, the ALJ gave little weight to the Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores that Pond received during the relevant period, which ranged from 30 to 46.[5]

         Finally, the ALJ held that Pond is capable of performing past relevant work as a personnel administrative specialist. Considering Pond's job history and educational background, as well as the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ asserted that this past work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Pond's RFC. Additionally, the ALJ cited the vocational expert's testimony for the proposition that Pond ...

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