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Rommel v. Saul

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

September 5, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Barbara Rommel seeks review of the decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security Andrew Saul denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Disabled Widow's Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiffs applications.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In January 2015, Plaintiff, then fifty-four years old, filed her application for Disabled Widow's Insurance Benefits, and on April 2015, she filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging that she was disabled as of July 30, 2011 due to bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 52) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied the claim in September 2015, and Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

         The SSA granted Plaintiffs request for review, and Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ on February 24, 2017. (Tr. 28-46) In a decision dated June 12, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 30, 2011 through the date of this decision." (Tr. 23)

         Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, and the SSA Appeals Council denied her request in January 2018. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Evidence before the ALJ

         A. Testimony

         Plaintiff testified that she was fifty-five years old, had an eleventh-grade education, and had suffered from mental illness since 1994. (Tr. 33-35) Plaintiff stated that she worked briefly as an in-home caregiver in 2011. (Tr. 37) As a caregiver, she regularly lifted twenty-five pounds or less, and her primary functions included cleaning, laundry, and cooking. Id. Prior to working as a caregiver, Plaintiff worked seven years at a bindery "more or less full time." (Tr. 35) According to her testimony, she was a "jack of all trades" where she "put books together" and delivered cases of paper. (Tr. 36-37)

         Plaintiff testified that she suffered from anxiety and mood swings. (Tr. 39-41) Although she had seen a psychiatrist in the past, she was not receiving treatment from a mental health professional at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 39-40)

         In regard to her psychological symptoms, Plaintiff described an incident at the bindery when, after receiving criticism from a supervisor, she "walked out" of the job and "cried all day." (Tr. 39) In response to the ALJ's question regarding her anxiety, Plaintiff responded: "...I just don't take things like I used to... .[I]t's hard for me to work with some people and stuff. If I don't take the medicine that I'm on now - I mean, my son can even tell it when I don't take it." (Tr. 40) In regard to her mood swings, Plaintiff explained: "I'll be talking to my son or someone and I'll be all right and then sometimes they'll say something and I'll just like that, go off on them or I'll get upset and walk away." (Tr. 42) Plaintiff stated that her medications did not cause side effects. (Tr. 41)

         Plaintiff testified that, on a typical day, "I really stay at home and I clean my house, do the laundry, cook a meal." (Tr. 41-42) On nice days, Plaintiff would go outside "and mope around and do things, pick up little things and stuff." (Tr. 42) Plaintiff spent most of her time at home because her "vehicle has been broke [sic] down[.]" (Tr. 41) Plaintiff testified that she had not drunk alcohol in two or three years. (Tr. 42)

         When the ALJ asked why she could not work as a night clerk at a hotel, Plaintiff responded, "I don't want to work at night. I don't want to work as being a clerk or any of that." (Tr. 41) Plaintiff stated she "tried working one time in a station thing and I didn't like it... .that was the ...first and the last night I worked there." (Id.) When the ALJ asked Plaintiff whether she could work in a hotel cleaning rooms by herself, Plaintiff said she would not want to work alone because there is "too much meanness going on in the world," but she was willing to work in housekeeping. Id.

         A vocational expert testified that Plaintiffs previous work as a bindery machinery feeder was "unskilled" and "light," and that her previous work as personal attendant was "semi-skilled" and "light." (Tr. 44) The ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical individual with the same age, education, and past relevant work as Plaintiff, who was able to perform medium work with the following limitations:

[C]an lift or carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. She can stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday and she can push or pull in the limits for lifting and carrying. She can have occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. She should not work with the general public as a primary job duty. She should work in a socially isolated work environment and she should not do teamwork type of job duties.

(Tr. 44) The vocational expert responded that this hypothetical individual could perform Plaintiff s previous work as a bindery machine feeder as it was "generally performed," but not as "she described it." Id. The vocational expert stated that the hypothetical individual could also perform other "medium, unskilled" jobs available in the national or regional economy, such as a "boring machine tender," linen room attendant, or riveting machine operator. (Tr. 45)

         B. Relevant Medical Records

         In August 2011, Plaintiff presented to psychiatrist Dr. Mogallapu for psychotherapy and medication management. (Tr. 280-87) Since her last appointment in April 2010, her husband's health had declined and he had been admitted to a nursing facility. (Tr. 283) Despite financial stressors, such as filing for bankruptcy and losing her house, Plaintiff stated that she was "hopeful about her future." (Tr. 283-84) Plaintiff reported that her "[a]nxiety is okay, when she takes her meds... so she has been taking her meds regularly." (Tr. 283) Upon examination, Plaintiffs mood was "okay," concentration was "good," affect was "euthymic, no overt distress or dysphoria," and she displayed no aggressive behavior. (Tr. 284) Plaintiff denied delusions, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts, and she appeared to be alert and oriented with good concentration. (Tr. 284) Dr. Mogallapu assigned a Global Assessment Functioning (GAF) score of 55[1] and continued Plaintiffs citalopram, buspirone, and trazodone. (Tr. 284-85, 425)

         When Plaintiff followed up with Dr. Mogallapu in December 2011, she reported "doing ok, besides the sleep problems and the fatigue at the end of the day." (Tr. 271) Plaintiff informed Dr. Mogallapu that "she drinks whiskey - about a couple of glasses every other night, after work. On the weekends, she might drink a pint," but "[i]t ain't that I got no alcohol problem[.]" (Id.) Plaintiff s mental status examination revealed normal mood and affect, good concentration, a GAF score of 55, and no delusions, hallucinations, suicidal ideation, or aggression. (Tr. 272) Dr. Mogallapu expressed concern that Plaintiff "might be minimizing the alcohol use" and recommended participation in AA and anxiety management groups. (Id.) Dr. Mogallapu prescribed mirtazapine, continued buspirone, tapered citalopram, and discontinued trazodone. (Tr. 273)

         In January 2012, Plaintiff visited psychotherapist Dr. Senioria Brown. (Tr. 266-68) Plaintiff informed Dr. Brown that she had been unemployed since November 2011 and had been living alone since her husband moved to a long-term care facility three months earlier. (Tr. 266) She also stated that she enjoyed embroidering, sewing, and working outside. (Tr. 266) Plaintiff expressed concern about the level of care her husband was receiving at his facility and complained that the mirtazapine made her feel "more depressed after I wake up in the morning." (Tr. 268) Dr. Brown counseled Plaintiff on the hazards of consuming alcohol while on prescribed medication and referred her to vocational rehabilitation "for possible assessment for job training or job placement within her disability...." (Id.)

         A few days later, Plaintiff returned to Dr. Mogallapu's office. (Tr. 259-264) Plaintiff reported: "I am doing better" because "I am not drinking like before." (Tr. 262) Plaintiff visited her husband every day, and she recently attended her daughter's baby shower. (Id.) Plaintiff informed Dr. Mogallapu that her sleep was "allright [sic], with trazodone," but she experienced "irritability and stress related to current social stressors - esp. financial, housing, etc." (Id.) Upon examination, Dr. Mogallapu noted that Plaintiffs mood was "ok"; affect was "mood congruent, can be irritable on topics related to financial management"; and concentration was "fair." (Tr. 263) Dr. Mogallapu assigned Plaintiff a GAF score of 55, discontinued mirtazapine, started Sertraline, continued buspirone, and restarted trazodone. (Tr. 263)

         When Plaintiff followed up with Dr. Mogallapu in February 2012, she reported that she was "doing okay" and her sleep "has actually been good lately." (Tr. 257) Plaintiff expressed happiness about the birth of her grandson and stated she had been helping her daughter, as well as visiting her husband in the nursing home. (Id.) Plaintiff reported that she had "several friends," one of whom accompanied Plaintiff to her appointment. (Id.) Plaintiff denied drinking any alcohol since her last appointment and stated she planned to "get[] back into the work force.. .though she is not sure when she might be trying to look for jobs." (Id.) Plaintiffs mood and affect were normal, concentration was good, and GAF was 55. (Tr. 258) Plaintiff declined referrals to individual therapy, stress/anxiety and ...

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