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Stidham v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

August 19, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


J. THOMAS MARTEN, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Sheila Marie Stidham ("Plaintiff") seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. In her pleadings, Plaintiff alleges error with regard to the Commissioner's assessment of her residual functional capacity and the opinions of her treating and consulting physicians. Upon review, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence contained in the record. As such, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff's mental health issues date back to December 2008 when Plaintiff first saw nurse practitioner Robin Tucker, ARNP ("Tucker") at the Wyandot Center complaining of anxiety. Plaintiff indicated that she had recently been through several traumatic life events, including the death of several family members and friends and the father of her middle child. She reportedly had no energy or ability to concentrate and described feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and anhedonia. Tucker's evaluation revealed that Plaintiff was alert and oriented to person, place, time, and situation and her memory was intact. She was diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia and was prescribed anti-depressants.

Plaintiff returned to the Wyandot Center multiple times over the next three years. While she often saw Tucker, there were numerous times when Plaintiff saw other treating staff. Her evaluations varied wildly, often dependent upon whether Plaintiff was taking her medication. For example, on February 9, 2009, Plaintiff reported that she was feeling good and that the medication was helpful. However, by April 21, 2009, Plaintiff stated that she was only taking her medication three times per week. By the end of June 2009, her anxiety had returned full-force and Plaintiff reported that she had been out of medication for two weeks. On August 28, 2009, Plaintiff stated that she had not been taking her medication because she did not feel depressed, but admitted to using a friend's Xanax. In January 2010, Plaintiff rated her anxiety and depression as a nine out of a possible ten, but by February 2010, she rated her issues as a five and four out of ten, respectively.

On April 17, 2010, Plaintiff underwent a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment with state examiner Dr. Charles Fantz, PhD ("Dr. Fantz"). Dr. Fantz determined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in her ability to: (1) understand and remember detailed instructions, (2) carry out detailed instructions, and (3) interact appropriately with the general public. Simultaneous to this assessment, Dr. Fantz conducted a Psychiatric Review Technique. He diagnosed Plaintiff with anxiety, as evidenced by the following symptoms: (1) a persistent irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation which results in a compelling desire to avoid the dreaded object, activity, or situation; and (2) recurrent severe panic attacks manifested by a sudden unpredictable onset of intense apprehension, fear, terror, and sense of impending doom occurring on the average of at least once a week.

On July 14, 2011, Tucker completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire on behalf of Plaintiff. Tucker noted that Plaintiff suffered from emotional lability, decreased energy, and generalized persistent anxiety. When asked to rate Plaintiff's functional limitations, Tucker indicated that Plaintiff suffered from either moderate or marked restriction of activities of daily living and maintaining social functioning. Plaintiff also displayed marked deficiencies of concentration, persistence, or pace resulting in a failure to complete tasks in a timely manner. Finally, Tucker reported that Plaintiff had suffered at least one, if not more, episode of decompensation. However, Tucker did not find that Plaintiff had low or reduced intellectual functioning.

Plaintiff's last visit to the Wyandot Center occurred on November 2, 2011. At this appointment, Plaintiff indicated that she had once again stopped taking her medication because she was not depressed. However, on November 23, 2011, Plaintiff called the Center requesting a refill of Valium. When staff noted that Plaintiff had just filled a prescription for 120 pills on October 21, 2011, Plaintiff indicated that she had run out because she had been taking more than what was prescribed. Plaintiff later notified the Center that she had found a new, un-used bottle of medication. At the time of her last appointment, Plaintiff's diagnosis remained unchanged: panic disorder with agoraphobia.

With regard to her physical health issues, Plaintiff was diagnosed with hepatitis C, type IIA, in July 2010. A liver biopsy showed some minor injury. Plaintiff's physician, Dr. Joseph W. Barry, MD ("Dr. Barry") recommended Plaintiff undergo a 24-week course of treatment. Plaintiff returned to Dr. Barry in December 2011, at which time Dr. Barry noted that Plaintiff had some degree of pain, discomfort, and distention in her upper right quadrant and had put on some weight. During an exam in January 2012, Dr. Barry noted that Plaintiff had a palpable liver edge but her pathology was negative for cirrhosis.

Plaintiff filed for SSI on March 1, 2010, alleging disability beginning February 1, 2007. Her claim was denied initially on August 31, 2010, and upon reconsideration on January 27, 2011. Plaintiff timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, which took place on January 30, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge John Kays ("ALJ Kays"). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Also testifying was Vocational Expert Kelly Wynn ("VE Wynn").

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was a thirty-year-old mother of three and was residing with her boyfriend. Plaintiff testified that she last worked as a food preparer for Honey Baked Farms in February 2005[1] and left that position because of complications with her last pregnancy. When asked why she could not return to work, Plaintiff stated "I'm always in pain, I'm always tired. My anxiety gets the best of me. I have mood swings very often." Dkt. 9-1, at 32. Plaintiff indicated that she had been diagnosed with hepatitis C and that she was getting ready to start treatment. Plaintiff also testified that she was depressed and afraid of dying. She experienced frequent crying spells and racing thoughts.

In describing her activities of daily living, Plaintiff indicated that she mostly lies on the couch and watches television. She stated that she takes a shower once or twice a week and relies on her boyfriend and thirteen-year-old son to help her around the house. Plaintiff indicated that she usually buys only food that her children can cook in the microwave because she does not cook. She rarely leaves the house and when she does it is usually to go to her father's house, which is down the street. Plaintiff stated that she also suffers from daily headaches and cannot stand on her feet longer than three minutes due to a "messed up" ankle. Dkt. 9-1, at 37.

In addition to Plaintiff's testimony, ALJ Kays also sought the testimony of VE Wynn to determine how, if at all, Plaintiff's impairments and limitations affected her ability to return to the workforce. VE Wynn described Plaintiff's past work as a cashier/checker and as a food assembler/kitchen as semiskilled and light. Based upon Plaintiff's testimony and his own review of the entire record, ALJ Kays asked the VE a series of hypothetical questions that included varying degrees of limitation on complexity of tasks, stressful situations, and attendance. Although the VE indicated that, with the restrictions as set forth by the ALJ, the hypothetical individual could not perform Plaintiff's past relevant work, she stated that there was other work in the national economy that an individual with such limitations could perform. During cross-examination, Plaintiff's counsel questioned whether, in addition to the limitations set forth by the ALJ, the hypothetical individual could perform other work if her problems with concentration, persistence, and pace resulted in a failure to complete tasks in a timely manner up to one-third of the time. The VE responded in the negative.

ALJ Kays issued his decision on February 10, 2012, finding that Plaintiff suffered from a variety of severe impairments including hepatitis C, anxiety disorder, and substance dependence in remission. Despite these findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. ALJ Kays concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: (1) only moderately complex tasks with four to five-step instructions in a habituated setting, and (2) no highly stressful jobs with high production quotas, rapid assembly, or intense ...

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