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Sully v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

June 27, 2017

TAMARA JOLENE SULLY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JULIE A. ROBINSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tamara Jolene Sully seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act.[1] Plaintiff alleges error with regard to the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) assessment of her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and his conclusion that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. Finding no error, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on March 26, 2014, alleging an onset date of June 1, 2013, due to her mental disorders. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application upon initial review and upon consideration. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an ALJ. She appeared and testified at a hearing before ALJ James Harty on September 16, 2015.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision against Plaintiff on January 21, 2016. He concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and Plaintiff timely filed an appeal with this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Standard for Judicial Review

         Judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to whether Defendant's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether Defendant applied the correct legal standards.[2] The Tenth Circuit has defined “substantial evidence” as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”[3] In the course of its review, the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of Defendant.[4]

         III. Legal Standards and Analytical Framework

         Under the Social Security Act, “disability” means the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment.”[5] An individual “shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.”[6] The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled.[7] If the ALJ determines the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any step along the way, the evaluation ends.[8]

         The ALJ determined at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. He determined at step two that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: mood disorder and a history of opioid addiction. He determined at step three that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526. He determined at step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work (sales clerk at a liquor store, caretaker, and veterinary technician). At step five, he determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations:

The claimant must avoid fast-paced production work and working as an integral part of a team. The claimant is limited to work that involves relatively few workplace changes. The claimant can occasionally interact with supervisors and coworkers, but can frequently interact with the general public.[9]

         Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because she could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy; specifically, machine finisher, plastics, twisting machine operator, and casting machine tender.[10]

         Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's determination at steps one through four. Plaintiff, however, challenges the ALJ's step five analysis, arguing that the ALJ erred by: 1) failing to provide sufficient reasons to discount the disabling portions of an examining physician's opinion while adopting other portions of his opinion; and 2) discrediting Plaintiff's statements regarding her symptoms without providing a sufficient explanation.

         IV. Analysis

         A. Dr. Moeller's Opinion

         T.A. Moeller, Ph. D., a consultative licensed psychologist, examined Plaintiff in October 2015.[11] Dr. Moeller opined, in pertinent part, that:”

Claimant does not seem to be experiencing any difficulties with activities of daily living, except for social interaction issues. Social functioning is significantly impaired. From her description of quitting her last job because she believed someone there wished her harm, this impairment of social functioning appears to be marked.
Ability to communicate and to ask and respond to questions and respond to directions is adequate. Concentration, persistence, and pace are adequate for dealing in usual situations without any significant stressors. However, as work place stress increases --- or Claimant's ideas of references are likely to increase. When that happens, her capacity for communicating with others will decrease, with verbal conflicts likely to occur. Her ability to deal with work place stress will also diminish, and to diminish her anxiety, she may leave the field and quit her job precipitously.
She appears as someone who will interview well and present as an attractive job applicant for situations in which she has the requisite skills. However, this evaluator believes it is likely she will not be able to maintain successful employment.[12]

         The ALJ gave some weight to Dr. Moeller's opinion, but ultimately disagreed with his assessment that Plaintiff would be unable to maintain successful employment due to her inability to deal with work-place stress.[13] The ALJ explained his reasoning as follows:

[B]ased on a review of the medical evidence and the claimant's testimony, the claimant's medical condition is stable since taking medication and participating in psychotherapy sessions. The undersigned further opines that if the cause of the problem is reduced, such as work place stress from working with others, the claimant is capable of performing full time work if those stresses are limited. Thus, the undersigned finds that the claimant is capable of performing the residual functional capacity herein, which limits her interaction with supervisors and coworkers, and simplifies her work environment:
The claimant must avoid fast-paced production work and working as an integral part of a team. The claimant is limited to work that involves relatively few workplace changes. In addition, the claimant can occasionally interact with supervisors and coworkers, but can frequently interact with the general public.[14]

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by 1): mischaracterizing Plaintiff's condition as stable without citation to evidentiary support; 2) relying upon Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores to conclude Plaintiff's condition was stable; and 3) failing to explain why limiting Plaintiff to a simplified work environment would make her less prone to the marked limitation Dr. Moeller opined she had. The Court finds these arguments unavailing.

         First, the ALJ did cite evidentiary support to conclude Plaintiff's condition was stable. He noted “[t]he medical evidence indicates that the claimant has been receiving mental health treatment since approximately July 2013, and [Plaintiff had] stated that with therapy sessions and medications, her symptoms have basically been controlled.”[15] He then proceeded to discuss Plaintiff's visit with John Naus, M.D., and her psychiatric treatment at Affiliated Psychiatric, LLC. Treatment notes from ...


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