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Carlisle v. Saul

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

September 30, 2019

DARLENE L. CARLISLE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1]Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This action is before the Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Darlene Carlisle was not disabled, and thus not entitled to disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         The Court adopts the statement of facts set forth in Plaintiff's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts (ECF No. 18-1) and Defendant's Statement of Additional Facts (ECF No. 23-2).[2] Together, these statements provide a fair description of the record before the Court. Specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.

         Plaintiff, who was born on January 17, 1959, originally filed an application for disability insurance benefits on June 29, 2012, alleging a disability beginning December 14, 2011, due to a variety of physical and mental conditions including fibromyalgia, Graves disease, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. Her application was denied at the administrative level, and she thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On January 30, 2015, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and from a vocational expert (VE). On April 30, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work and was thus not disabled under the Act. On October 24, 2016, the Appeals Council remanded the case for further consideration of Plaintiff's mental impairments.

         On remand, on September 13, 2017, another ALJ held an additional hearing at which Plaintiff testified. By decision dated January 4, 2018, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined by the Commissioner's regulations, except for the following limitations:

She cannot frequently reach overhead to the left or right. For other reaching, she can frequently reach to the left and right. She can frequently handle, finger, and feel with both hands. She can frequently climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or frequently balance stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. She can never work at unprotected heights, move mechanical machinery, or drive a motor vehicle as a job duty and can never be exposed to vibrations. Tr. 41.

         The ALJ next found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a mortgage clerk and customer complaint clerk. Tr. 46-57. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. On June 15, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Thus, Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner for this Court's review.

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff's mental impairments non-severe. More specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to follow the Appeals Council's instructions in considering the evidence of those impairments and misapplied the “slight abnormality” standard, resulting in a decision that is not supported by substantial evidence.

         The ALJ's Decision (Tr. 32-47)

         As an initial matter, the ALJ noted that the Appeals Council, in its remand order, instructed the ALJ to: (1) obtain any medical evidence needed to complete the administrative record in accordance with 20 CFR 404.1512-1513; (2) further evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments in accordance with the special technique set forth in 20 CFR 404-1520a; (3) give further consideration to Plaintiff's RFC after evaluation of the non-examining source opinion of Dr. Novak; (4) give further consideration to the third-party function report submitted by Plaintiff's daughter, Andrea Brown; and (5) if warranted by the expanded record, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, pelvic floor dysfunction, osteitis pubis, peripheral neuropathy, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, and arthritis. However, he found that none of these impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of impairments listed in the Commissioner's regulations. The ALJ further noted that Plaintiff has several other physical conditions that the ALJ found to be non-severe. Plaintiff does not challenge the findings with respect to her physical conditions.

         With respect to Plaintiff's mental impairments centrally at issue here, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had been diagnosed with ADHD, PSTD, and depressive and mood disorders not otherwise specified. However, the ALJ determined that these impairments, considered singly and in combination, did not cause more than minimal limitations on Plaintiff's ability to perform basic mental work activities and therefore were non-severe.

         In applying “paragraph B” criteria, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; or in adapting or managing herself. In arriving at that determination, the ALJ reasoned as follows. Although Plaintiff's daughter, Ms. Brown, reported that Plaintiff is forgetful, the severity of her forgetfulness is not corroborated by instances of medical non-compliance, missed appointments, or unreliable accounts of history. Plaintiff is able to monitor medications for herself and her husband. Plaintiff's function reports were complete and detailed. Mental examinations showed normal memory. Plaintiff is active in her church community and participates in ministry. She provided care to her husband before his death. She remained socially engaged and remarried. She interacts with family and friends. Medical sources describe her as friendly, polite, and cooperative. Plaintiff's ADHD is controlled by medication, which helps with concentration, organization, memory, and function. She ...


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