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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

November 26, 2014

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


JOHN E. OTT, Chief Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Sadawn Latrease Smith, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and for Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI"). (R. 24). This case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for the disposition of the matter. (Doc. 10). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), FED. R. CIV. P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security act and for SSI on March 23, 2011. (Doc. 11 at 1). These applications were initially denied. ( Id. ) Afterwards, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on May 14, 2012. (R. 35-68).[1] The ALJ denied disability benefits to Plaintiff on June 27, 2012, concluding that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1420(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.915 and 416.926). (R. 23-4). The Appeals Council declined to grant a review of the ALJ's decision on July 25, 2014. (R. 1-5). Plaintiff then field this action for judicial review pursuant to § 205(g) and § 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). (Doc. 1).

II. Standard of Review

In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court's role is a narrow one. "Our review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). The plaintiff must demonstrate that the decision of the Commissioner is not supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g. Allen v. Schweiker, 642 F.2d 799 (5th Cir. 1981). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Winschel v. Commissioner of Social Sec. 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011)(internal quotations and citations omitted). The court gives deference to factual findings and reviews questions of law de novo. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). The court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner], rather [it] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1982))(internal quotations and other citations omitted). As noted above, conclusions of law made by the Commissioner are reviewed de novo. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1145. Accordingly, "[n]o... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law." Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).

III. Discussion

A. Facts

Plaintiff was 37 years old at the time of her hearing and has a college degree. (R. 40). At 37, Plaintiff is considered a "younger person" according to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c) and 416.963(c). Plaintiff's past relevant work experience is as an operations manager with Wal-Mart. (R. 62). Plaintiff contends she has been unable to engage in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2008, after being placed on extended leave by her employer subsequent to filing a discrimination lawsuit. She claims she became unable to work due to bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and borderline personality traits. (R. 22). Plaintiff testified during her hearing before the ALJ that she is unable to work due to these conditions, and that any stress causes her to be off-balance, unable to think, and have racing thoughts. (R. 41).

Since May 2008, Plaintiff has been to multiple hospitals and medical centers to seek treatment for her mental health issues. (R. 253). On May 20, 2008, Plaintiff submitted to inpatient treatment for paranoid thoughts after she was referred by an emergency room physician to psychiatrist Dr. Armand Schachter.[2] ( Id. ) Her initial assessment at the hospital indicates that she was alert, fully oriented, very pleasant, had good eye contact, normal speech, logical and coherent though process, fine mood and stable affect, good insight, judgment, and cognition, and no psychomotor agitation, harmful ideation, or psychosis. (R. 245-47, 249, 253). She had an assigned Global Assessment of Functioning Score ("GAF")[3] of 10[4] upon admission. (R. 247). Plaintiff's brain MRI was unremarkable, and she responded well to the environment and medication. Dr. Schachter discharged her to go home approximately three weeks later with an assigned GAF of 90, indicating absent or minimal symptoms. (R. 245). See American Psychiatric Ass'n., Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition ("DSM-IV").

After her discharge, Plaintiff continued seeing Dr. Schachter. However, her visits were sporadic. (R. 238-39, 260-67). Plaintiff went to the emergency room for unrelated issues in June and September 2008. She did not complain of any mental symptoms. (R. 421-431).

At some point, she discontinued her medications against her doctor's advice. This resulted in her being hospitalized on March 27, 2009, for complaints of depression and suicidal thoughts. (R. 238). The notes from Plaintiff's intake indicate that she had suicidal thoughts, "loosening of associations, " and "pressure of speech, " but she was alert and oriented. (R. 242). Her GAF was assessed at 10. (R. 238). Within a week after admission, Dr. Schachter noted Plaintiff's condition had improved, and she had no harmful ideation or psychosis. (R. 239-42). She was discharged by Dr. Schachter who again assigned a GAF of 90. (R. 237). She was diagnosed as being bipolar, with mixed exacerbation with psychotic features in remission, and general anxiety disorder. ( Id. )

In a June 4, 2009 visit, Plaintiff reported a good, stable mood. Dr. Schachter's office recommended continuing her current medication. (R. 258).

Plaintiff became pregnant in early 2010, and gave birth in September 2010. (R. 381-82, 400). In March 2011, when Plaintiff sought emergency room care for depression, she had been off her medication for over a year due to her pregnancy, but reported no prior suicide attempts and was alert, fully oriented, and had normal speech, mood, and affect and ...

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