United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge.
Plaintiff Heather Wright brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) and Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Based upon the court's review of the record and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.
I. Proceedings Below
This action arises from Plaintiff's application for DIB and SSI on June 21, 2010, alleging disability beginning on November 1, 2009. (Tr. 160-67). Plaintiff's application was denied both initially and also upon reconsideration. (Tr. 97-101, 103-07). Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Perry Martin ("ALJ"), on March 2, 2011, in Montgomery, Alabama. (Tr. 71). In his decision, dated April 14, 2011, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (Tr. 58).
Over ten months after the ALJ issued his decision, Plaintiff received a psychological evaluation from the Gadsden Psychological Services, LLC, dated February 28, 2012. (Tr. 36-41). In a report connected to that assessment, David R. Wilson, Ph.D., diagnosed Plaintiff with "Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia, Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent (severe)." (Tr. 41). Although he was a nontreating physician, Dr. Wilson found, in relevant part,
[Plaintiff's] [l]evel of functioning is so impaired that she does not appear to be capable, at this time, of working at any type of job environment. Would have great difficulty with the task demands and with interpersonal aspects of any job setting. It is not likely that her status will improve significantly in the next 12 months.
(Tr. 41 (emphasis added)). Dr. Wilson's opinion was based upon Plaintiff's medical records,  various clinical tests, and an interview with Plaintiff. (Tr. 36-41). Plaintiff submitted this assessment to the Appeals Council to supplement her request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 36-41).
On May 31, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 13-19), rendering the ALJ's decision final and, therefore, a proper subject of this court's appellate review. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 422.210(a). On July 15, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's subsequent petition to reopen and change its earlier decision. (Tr. 1). In both instances, the Appeals Council acknowledged Dr. Wilson's psychological evaluation, but concluded that, because it post-dated the ALJ's decision and provided an analysis of Plaintiff's condition at a later time, the records from the evaluation did not affect the ALJ's decision about whether the claimant was disabled on or before April 14, 2011. (Tr. 1, 14).
At the time of Plaintiff's ALJ hearing, Plaintiff was forty years old and had an eighth grade education. (Tr. 76-77). Plaintiff has previously worked as a home care provider, manager, cook, and waitress. (Tr. 78, 89). With regard to her domestic life, Plaintiff testified that she had been living in a storage building on her boyfriend's mother's property for a little over a year. (Tr. 77). Plaintiff explained to the ALJ that the only income she receives is from food stamps. (Tr. 77).
Plaintiff complains that she suffers from severe panic disorder with agoraphobia, depression, and anxiety disorder. ( See Tr. 60, 78, 196). According to Plaintiff, she has panic attacks three to four times a week, each lasting approximately eight to ten minutes. (Tr. 81). Plaintiff believes these panic attacks are triggered by going outside and that they have limited her ability to engage in substantial gainful activity since November 1, 2009. (Tr. 82, 160, 164, 196). Plaintiff claims to have lost ten jobs due to panic attacks, including her job as a manager at Shoney's which she held for thirteen-and-a-half years. (Tr. 84-86). Plaintiff testified that, while at Shoney's, she did not know how to control her panic attacks, and they sometimes occurred six to ten times a day causing her to blackout. (Tr. 85).
Since working at Shoney's, Plaintiff has not been able to hold a job for more than six months at a time. (Tr. 86). Plaintiff has consistently been noncompliant in maintaining her medical treatments (Tr. 344, 398), and has never consistently taken prescribed medication. (Tr. 83-83). Plaintiff testified that even with appropriate medical treatment she still could not work due to her panic attacks. (Tr. 84). At the time of the onset of her alleged disability, Plaintiff was a cook at Huddle House. (Tr. 77-78). She had been working for about six months when she testified she was terminated due to her panic attacks. (Tr. 77-78).
Prior to her alleged period of disability, Plaintiff received treatment at various institutions for her health issues. In June 2006, Plaintiff was seen at Polk Medical Center for a panic attack that Plaintiff claimed was brought on by stress at home. (Tr. 327). From July 12 to 17 of the same year, Plaintiff was admitted to Cobb Douglas Community Service because of suicidal ideations and depression. (Tr. 267). Upon her discharge, Plaintiff was prescribed Prozac and Vistarl to be taken daily. (Tr. 267-68). On March 10, 2009, Plaintiff received treatment for a urinary tract infection and acute abdominal and flank pains at Stringfellow Memorial Hospital. (Tr. 301). She was discharged with medication management. (Tr. 301-19). On May 17, 2009, Plaintiff returned to Stringfellow with an unremarkable laceration on her left leg. (Tr. 290).
During her alleged period of disability, Plaintiff was treated sporadically at Calhoun Celburne Mental Health Clinic ("CCC"). Although Plaintiff had first visited CCC in 2008, Plaintiff was unable to receive medication for her panic attacks because she was unable to return to the clinic on a regular basis due to transportation issues. (Tr. 80). In June 16, 2010, Plaintiff returned to the CCC and was given a tentative diagnosis of panic disorder with agoraphobia and depression. (Tr. 333, 337). On July 16, 2010, Plaintiff overslept and missed a follow-up appointment with a CCC therapist, which was rescheduled. (Tr. 344). On February 18, 2011, Plaintiff returned to CCC for a third time and received inpatient psychiatric treatment. (Tr. 395). At this intake, Plaintiff's therapist, Bonne Evans, found Plaintiff to have a poor history of compliance with treatment. (Tr. 398; see also 80-84, 87, 344, 398). Plaintiff was not provided with medication management, and was told to attend individual therapy. ( See Tr. 80, 398).
On March 18, 2011, Plaintiff returned for a follow-up appointment with Evans and Dr. Maurice Jeter at Jacksonville Mental Health Clinic. (Tr. 403-08). Evans and Dr. Jeter found Plaintiff to be active and cooperative, participating in developing an ongoing treatment plan. (Tr. 408). Their plan involved no immediate medication, but in conformity with Evans's prior recommendations, anticipated future individual therapy sessions. ( See Tr. 80, 406-07).
After applying for benefits, Plaintiff was the subject of several mental health examinations during the relevant period. On August 27, 2010, Plaintiff attended a psychological consultative examination conducted by Dana Davis, Ph.D. (Tr. 346-48). At this appointment, Plaintiff reported that she had some periods of homelessness, but had friends that let her stay with them. (Tr. 346). Plaintiff reported that she was anxious and jittery and continued to suffer from panic attacks. (Tr. 347). Dr. Davis performed a mental status examination, and found that, although Plaintiff's symptoms might fit generalized anxiety disorder, her description of her panic attacks did not seem credible. (Tr. 347-48). Dr. Davis believes that Plaintiff's descriptions of her panic attacks were atypical, and her episodes "seemed to be simply more behavioral acting-out." (Tr. 347).
On September 3, 2010, Plaintiff underwent a psychiatric review from Robert Estock, M.D., a State Agency medical consultant. ( See Tr. 363-75). Dr. Estock found that Plaintiff had only a mild limitation in restriction on activities of daily living, difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 373). Furthermore, Dr. Estock found Plaintiff had no episodes of decompensation. (Tr. 373). He concluded that, based on the Listing 12.04 for affective disorders and Listing 12.06 for anxiety-related disorders, Plaintiff's impairments were not severe. (Tr. 375).
In addition to the medical expert's evaluations, Plaintiff's friend, Edith Feldser, submitted a Third Party Function Report detailing her knowledge of Plaintiff's situation. (Tr. 205-12). This report largely confirmed that Plaintiff is mostly independent in activities of daily living. ( See Tr. 205-212). Feldser indicated that Plaintiff "fears going outside" and suffers from panic attacks, but also that Plaintiff lives alone, sometimes prepares her own meals, and does her own cleaning and laundry. ( See Tr. 205-07, 212).
Based on Plaintiff's RFC and vocational profile (age, education, and past work experience), the ALJ elicited testimony from vocational expert Dr. William Green, indicating that a hypothetical individual, who was similarly situated in the relevant respects could perform Plaintiff's past relevant work as a manager, a waitress, and a cook. (Tr. 65, 89-92). Based on the vocational expert's testimony, Plaintiff's testimony, and the rest of the record at the time of the hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 66).
II. ALJ Decision
Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). "Substantial work activity" is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. Id. § 404.1572(a). "Gainful work activity" is work that is done for pay or profit. Id. § 404.1572(b). If the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability. Id. § 404.1520(b). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id. Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in the federal regulations. See id. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. If such criteria are met, the claimant is declared disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
If the claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be declared disabled under the third step, the ALJ may still find disability under the next two steps of the analysis. The ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which refers to the claimant's ability to work despite her impairments. Id. § 404.1520(e). In the fourth step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is determined to be capable of performing past relevant work, then the claimant is deemed not disabled. Id. If the ALJ finds the claimant unable to perform past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In the last part of the analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is able to perform any other work commensurate with her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(g). Here, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the ALJ to prove the existence, in significant numbers, of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can do given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. §§ 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c).
In the present case, after considering the record in its entirety as it existed at that time, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity and has a combination of severe impairments of depression and panic disorder. (Tr. 60). However, with regard to the third prong, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairment neither met nor equaled Listing 12.04 or Listing 12.06 under the Listings of Impairments, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). (Tr. 61). The ALJ noted that "[n]o medical expert has concluded that the claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment." (Tr. 61). Next, the ALJ considered the requirements of "Paragraph B" of each Listing, each of which require the mental impairments to result in at least two of the following: marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each for extended duration. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Because Plaintiff had no more than moderate restrictions or difficulties in each of these categories, and no episodes of decompensation, the ALJ found the "Paragraph B" criteria were not satisfied. For many of these same reasons, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff failed to present evidence establishing the presence of "Paragraph C" criteria, which requires repeated episodes of decompensation, propensity toward decompensation, or the need for highly supportive living arrangements. See id.
Before proceeding to the fourth and fifth prongs of the sequential analysis, the ALJ completed a RFC assessment. (Tr. 62-65). In completing this assessment, the ALJ found that, although Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not wholly credible. The ALJ noted that CCC treated Plaintiff for her alleged mental impairments, but did not provide the treatment one would expect for a totally disabled individual. (Tr. 64). For example, Plaintiff was not provided with medication management, and was told to attend individual therapy. (Tr. 80, 394-98, 400-09). Furthermore, Plaintiff has generally remained noncompliant with her treatment. ( See, e.g., Tr. 80-84, 87, 344, 398). Based on Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairment was "generally under control" because she had successfully tolerated her impairments without medication since 2007. (Tr. 64; see also Tr. 82).
The ALJ also gave significant weight to both Dr. Davis and Dr. Estock's evaluations, which found Plaintiff neither credible nor severely disabled. (Tr. 65, 348). The ALJ found that was Dr. Davis's testimony consistent with the records and reports of Plaintiff's treating physicians and the evidence as a whole, and that Dr. Davis's opinion is entitled to more weight because he was a specialist in Psychology and a Program medical expert. (Tr. 65). According to the ALJ, Dr. Estock's opinion was due significant weight, in part, because it provided specific reasons for his opinion and was well grounded in the evidence of record. (Tr. 65). Conversely, the ALJ found the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians too incomplete to serve as the basis of an RFC. (Tr. 65).
For these reasons, the ALJ determined that, notwithstanding her impairments, the objective evidence showed that Plaintiff had the RFC to:
perform work at all exertional levels, with moderate limitations in her ability to understand, remember and carry out detailed tasks, maintain attention and concentration for extended periods of approximately two-hour segments, perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance and be punctual within customary tolerances, sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, work in coordination with or proximity to others without being unduly distracted by them, make simple work-related decisions, complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, respond to customers or other members of the general public, ask simple questions or request assistance, respond appropriately to supervision, respond appropriately to co-workers, maintain socially appropriate behavior and to adhere to standards of neatness and cleanliness, respond to changes in work setting, be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions, and travel to unfamiliar places to use public transportation.
(Tr. 62). Accordingly, at the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC did not preclude Plaintiff from performing her past relevant work as a waitress, manager, or cook. (Tr. 65). In making this determination, the ALJ relied on Dr. Green, a vocational expert who testified that a hypothetical individual of Plaintiff's same age, education, past relevant work experience, and RFC would be able to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 89-91). Therefore, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff is not disabled as that term is defined in the ...