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Britton v. Berryhill

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

June 6, 2017

MANDY MARIE BRITTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          P. BRADLEY MURRAY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security awarding supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits for a closed period from September 23, 2012 through October 17, 2013 but declining to award SSI beyond October 17, 2013 based upon the finding of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that Britton experienced significant medical improvement, as of October 18, 2013, sufficient to allow her to perform a limited range of sedentary work. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), for all proceedings in this Court. (Doc. 22 (“In accordance with provisions of 28 U.S.C. §636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States magistrate judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, . . . order the entry of a final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”); see also Doc. 24 (endorsed order of reference)). Upon consideration of the administrative record, plaintiff's brief, and the Commissioner's brief, [1] it is determined that the Commissioner's decision denying benefits should be reversed and remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this decision.[2]

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on September 24, 2012 and September 28, 2012, respectively, alleging disability beginning on or about August 15, 1998. (See Tr. 186-193.) Her claims were initially denied on December 6, 2012 (Tr. 119-130) and, following Plaintiff's request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (see Tr. 131-132), hearings were conducted before an ALJ on December 18, 2013 (Tr. 29-65) and August 5, 2014 (Tr. 66-101). On September 16, 2014, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding claimant not disabled prior to the expiration of her insured status under the Social Security Act (that is, she was not disabled prior to September 30, 2001) and, therefore, not entitled to disability insurance benefits (Tr. 12-13) but finding that, for the period from September 23, 2012 through October 17, 2013, Britton was entitled to supplemental security income benefits because she was under a disability and unable to perform sedentary work during that period of time (Tr. 13-18). The ALJ went on to find, however, that Britton experienced medical improvement as of October 18, 2013, and that on this date her disability ended (Tr. 18-24). On October 28, 2014, the Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's unfavorable decision to the Appeals Council (see Tr. 244-45) and, the Appeals Council denied Britton's request for review (Tr. 1-3).[3] Thus, the hearing decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         Because Britton does not challenged the ALJ's finding that she was disabled, under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, for the period of September 23, 2012 through October 17, 2013, [4] and her brief cannot be read as challenging the finding that she was not disabled under Title II prior to the expiration of her insured status, that is, prior to September 30, 2001 (see Doc. 17, at 2-9), [5] the undersigned simply sets forth the following relevant portions of the ALJ's analysis in connection with the disputed finding that Britton was no longer disabled as of October 18, 2013 (see generally Tr. 18-24).

12. The claimant has not developed any new impairment or impairments since October 18, 2013, the date the claimant's disability ended. Thus, the claimant's current severe impairments are the same as that present from September 23, 2012 through October 17, 2013.

         13. Beginning October 18, 2013, the claimant has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.994(b)(5)(i)).

         The undersigned has considered whether any of the claimant's impairments, whether singly or in combination, meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments. The undersigned concludes they do not.

Beginning October 18, 2013, the severity of the claimant's mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.08.
. . .
14. Medical improvement occurred as of October 18, 2013, the date the claimant's disability ended (20 CFR 416.994(b)(1)(i)).

         Once the claimant was properly diagnosed as suffering from Sjogren's syndrome and began receiving treatment from rheumatology, her symptoms began to improve. No later than October 18, 2013, the claimant's symptoms improved to such an extent that her disability ended. On that date, treatment notes state the claimant was “not feeling tired or poorly”. During the period of disability, this was one of the claimant's predominant complaints. The claimant also reported “no localized joint pain” and “no depression.” In other words, virtually all of the claimant's disabling symptoms were much improved. The undersigned notes that this state of improvement was not a singular occurrence. The claimant's condition has remained essentially the same since October 18, 2013. On November 18, 2013, the claimant reported: “no systemic symptoms”; “no head symptoms”; “no otolaryngeal symptoms”; “no cardiovascular symptoms”; “no pulmonary symptoms”; “no gastrointestinal symptoms”; “no genitourinary symptoms”; “no endocrine symptoms”; “no musculoskeletal symptoms”; and “no skin symptoms.” Two months later, the claimant presented with complaints unrelated to her previously disabling impairments. She complained of “possible” urinary tract infection and chest pain. The claimant was diagnosed as suffering from acute sinusitis and echo virus upper respiratory. Treatment notes made no mention of ongoing problems related to her severe impairments. Whereas the claimant previously required regular medical treatment, there are no treatment records after January 10, 2014. This paucity of medical treatment tends to indicate the claimant's symptoms are not as intense, persistent, frequent or limiting as they were in the past.

15. The medical improvement that has occurred is related to the ability to work because there has been an increase in the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 416.994(b)(1)(iv)(A)).

         In comparing the claimant's residual functional capacity for the period during which she was disabled with the residual functional capacity beginning October 18, 2013, the undersigned finds that the claimant's residual functional capacity for basic work activities has increased. In particular, due to the claimant's documented reduction in pain and fatigue, the claimant's ability to remain on task is greatly improved.

16. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, beginning October 18, 2013, the claimant has had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except the claimant is limited to work which will only require the claimant to: occasionally lift/carry 10 pounds; stand/walk approximately 2 hours during an 8-hour workday; sit for 6 hours during an 8-hour workday, with customary breaks; never perform pushing/pulling of heavy arm, leg or foot controls; never climb, crouch, kneel, crawl or squat; frequently handle; occasionally perform fine manipulation/fingering; never perform overhead work; not have concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures; never have exposure to noxious fumes or gases. The claimant is further limited to work which will permit her to be “off task” approximately 5% of the workday (i.e. about 3-5 minutes per hour), secondary to pain, discomfort, and psychological symptoms. The claimant is further limited to work which will permit her to occasionally alternate between the sitting and standing postures, while remaining at the workstation and continuing her work.
The claimant alleges her symptoms include: fatigue; lack of energy; diffuse joint pain (especially in the back, right knee and right ankle); dry mouth/eyes; neuropathic pain in her hands and feet; and impaired concentration, persistence or pace. The claimant alleges her symptoms limit her ability to: sit; stand; walk; lift; carry; push; pull; reach; bend; stoop; kneel; crouch; crawl; climb; finger; handle; and sustain concentration on task. The claimant alleges her symptoms are so intense, persistent and frequent that the limiting effects prevent her from performing any substantial gainful activity.
After considering the evidence of record, the undersigned finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision.
In accordance with SSR 02-1p, the undersigned has considered the impact obesity has on limitation of function including the claimant's ability to perform routine movement and necessary physical activity within the work environment. The undersigned was cognizant of the fact that the combined effects of obesity with other impairments may be greater than might be expected if each impairment existed in isolation.
The undersigned will not repeat the analysis of the medical evidence discussed earlier in this decision. That earlier discussion is sufficient to establish that the claimant suffers from the severe impairments identified.
Once the claimant was properly diagnosed as suffering from Sjogren's syndrome and began receiving treatment from the rheumatology department, her symptoms began to improve. No later than October 18, 2013, the claimant's symptoms improved to such an extent that her disability ended. On that date, treatment notes state the claimant was “not feeling tired or poorly”. During the period of disability, this was one of the claimant's predominant complaints. The claimant also reported “no localized joint pain” and “no depression.” In other words, all of the claimant's disabling symptoms were much improved. The undersigned notes that this state of improvement was not a singular occurrence. The claimant's condition has remained essentially the same since October 18, 2013. On November 18, 2013, the claimant reported: “no systemic symptoms”; “no head symptoms”; “no otolaryngeal symptoms”; “no cardiovascular symptoms”; “no pulmonary symptoms”; “no gastrointestinal symptoms”; “no genitourinary symptoms”; “no endocrine symptoms”; “no musculoskeletal symptoms”; and “no skin symptoms.” Two months later, the claimant persisted with complaints unrelated to her previously disabling impairments. She complained of “possible” urinary tract infection and chest pain. The claimant was diagnosed as suffering from acute sinusitis and echo virus upper respiratory. Treatment notes made no mention of ongoing problems related to her severe impairments. Whereas the claimant previously required regular medical treatment, there are no treatment records after January 10, 2014. This paucity of medical treatment tends to indicate the claimant's symptoms are not as intense, persistent, frequent or limiting as they were in the past. Since October 18, 2013, the claimant has not required emergent care or inpatient care of any kind.
The evidence of record includes no medical opinions related to the period beginning October 18, 2013.
As noted above, the paucity of treatment since October 18, 2013 (only three doctor's visits)[] is inconsistent with the claimant's allegations of intense, persistent, frequent and disabling symptoms. The claimant has required no mental health treatment since October 18, 2013. This is inconsistent with any allegations of intense, persistent and limiting psychological symptoms. The claimant's admitted activities of daily living include: cooking; cleaning; vacuuming; washing dishes; shopping; playing cards and socializing with friends[, ] etc. These activities of daily living are more robust than one would expect from a person suffering from the intense, persistent, and limiting symptoms alleged by the claimant. The claimant's testimony that, every other week, she is essentially unable to perform any normal activities of daily living is not consistent with her paucity of medical treatment. Additionally, the claimant acknowledges she performed some part-time work cleaning homes until February of ...

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