United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Big Stone Gap Division
PAMELA MEADE SARGENT, Magistrate Judge.
I. Background and Standard of Review
Plaintiff, Michelle Lynn Blanken, ("Blanken"), filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, ("Commissioner"), determining that she was not eligible for supplemental security income, ("SSI"), under the Social Security Act, as amended, ("Act"), 42 U.S.C.A. § 1381 et seq . (West 2012). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge upon transfer by consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1).
The court's review in this case is limited to determining if the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence has been defined as "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is "substantial evidence.'"" Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws, 368 F.2d at 642).
The record shows that Blanken protectively filed her application for SSI on August 6, 2009, alleging disability as of September 24, 2009,  due to bipolar disorder, mood swings, paranoia, insomnia, auditory hallucinations, migraines and neck pain. (Record, ("R."), at 214-16, 217-18, 234, 264.) The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. at 128-30, 134-38, 140-44, 145-46, 148-50, 152-54.) Blanken then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, ("ALJ"). (R. at 155-56.) The hearing was held on January 18, 2012, at which Blanken was represented by counsel. (R. at 38-94.)
By decision dated March 12, 2012, the ALJ denied Blanken's claim. (R. at 23-33.) The ALJ found that Blanken had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 26, 2009, the date of her application. (R. at 25.) The ALJ determined that the medical evidence established that Blanken suffered from severe impairments, including bipolar disorder, depression, a history of substance abuse, personality disorder and migraines, but he found that Blanken did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed at or medically equal to one listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 25-27.) The ALJ found that Blanken had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with nonexertional limitations. (R. at 27-31.) Specifically, he found that Blanken could perform simple, routine and repetitive tasks in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, involving only simple work-related decisions and routine workplace changes, and in an environment requiring no more than occasional interaction with the public and with co-workers. (R. at 27-31.) The ALJ found that Blanken was able to perform her past relevant work as a kennel cleaner. (R. at 31.) Based on Blanken's age, education, work history and residual functional capacity and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ also found that Blanken could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including jobs as a dishwasher, a laundry/drycleaner worker and a vehicle cleaner. (R. at 32.) Therefore, the ALJ found that Blanken was not under a disability as defined under the Act and was not eligible for benefits. (R. at 33.) See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f), (g) (2014).
After the ALJ issued his decision, Blanken pursued her administrative appeals, (R. at 17-18), but the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. at 1-5.) Blanken then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, which now stands as the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481 (2014). The case is before this court on Blanken's motion for summary judgment filed May 7, 2014, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment filed June 12, 2014.
II. Facts 
Blanken was born in 1971, (R. at 214), which classifies her as a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c). She completed the eleventh grade,  and received her General Equivalency Development diploma, ("GED"). (R. at 58, 85.) Blanken has past work as a clerk/cashier, a certified nursing assistant, ("CNA"), and a kennel cleaner. (R. at 86.) She stated she had panic attacks twice daily, severe mood swings, heavy depression and paranoia. (R. at 53, 58, 65.) Blanken testified that she got nervous and anxious around crowds, causing her to stay home. (R. at 54.) She stated that there were times she would not leave her house for a week at a time and that she did not get out of bed two or three days each week due to fatigue and depression. (R. at 64, 68.) Blanken stated she had difficulty holding a job due to anger management issues and difficulty getting along with others. (R. at 54-55.) She stated that she previously had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but she self-medicated with alcohol because medications had not helped her condition. (R. at 55-56.)
Blanken testified that she had a physically and emotionally abusive father and ex-husband and that she previously had been raped. (R. at 56-57.) She stated that she experienced nightmares every night despite taking Haldol. (R. at 60.) She admitted to suicidal ideations and probably would kill herself if it were not for her son. (R. at 59, 68.) She testified that her mind raced all the time and that, despite taking medications, she heard voices constantly, which prevented her from completing tasks. (R. at 60, 63.) Blanken testified that her college-aged son lived with her. (R. at 60.) She stated that she became "pretty violent" when angry, admitting that she ran over her ex-husband with a car. (R. at 61.) Blanken explained that she had a "horrible, horrible temper." (R. at 76.)
Blanken testified that she willingly had undergone substance abuse treatment for 10 months, which helped. (R. at 76-77.) However, she testified that she no longer considered herself an alcoholic or addict. (R. at 77.) She explained that she was self-medicating with alcohol, but the last time she had consumed an alcoholic beverage was in November 2011, when she had one glass of champagne. (R. at 77-78.) She stated that it had been so long since she had used any pain medications, Ritalin or marijuana that she could not remember when it was. (R. at 78.) Blanken testified that she had enjoyed painting pictures in the past, but could no longer do so due to hand tremors. (R. at 65-66.) She stated that she had two dogs, which she fed and watered. (R. at 72.)
AnnMarie Cash, a vocational expert, also was present and testified at Blanken's hearing. (R. at 84-90.) Cash classified Blanken's past work as a clerk/cashier as light and semi-skilled, as a CNA as medium and semi-skilled and as a kennel cleaner as medium and unskilled. (R. at 86.) Cash testified that an individual of Blanken's age, education and work experience, who had no exertional, postural, manipulative, environmental, visual or communicative limitations, but who would be limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, involving only simple work-related decisions and routine workplace changes, could perform Blanken's past work as a kennel cleaner. (R. at 86.) She further testified that such an individual could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including those of a dishwasher, a laundry/drycleaner worker and a vehicle cleaner. (R. at 87.) Cash testified that employers customarily expected no more than two absences per month from employees, and exceeding these limitations on a regular basis would eliminate the jobs cited in the available work in a competitive workplace. (R. at 87.) Cash testified that an individual would be allowed to be off task no more than 20 percent during a workday in addition to regularly scheduled breaks and be able to maintain competitive employment. (R. at 87-88.) Cash next testified that the same hypothetical individual as previously described, but who also would be limited to only occasional interaction with the public and with co-workers, could perform Blanken's past work as a kennel cleaner, as well as other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including those of a dishwasher, a laundry/drycleaner worker and a vehicle cleaner. (R. at 88-89.) Cash also testified that the same hypothetical individual, but who would need to be isolated from the public, with only occasional supervision and only occasional interaction with co-workers, would not be able to perform Blanken's past work as a kennel cleaner, nor would she be able to perform any competitive work. (R. at 89-90.)
In rendering his decision, the ALJ reviewed records from Bristol Regional Medical Center; Dr. Uzma Ehtesham, M.D.; Ridgeview at Bristol Regional Medical Center; Wise County Behavioral Health Services; Lee County Behavioral Health Services; B. Wayne Lanthorn, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist; Julie Jennings, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist; Joseph Leizer, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist; Lonesome Pine Hospital; Addiction Recovery Center of East Tennessee; and Robert Spangler, Ed.D., a licensed psychologist. Blanken's counsel submitted additional medical records from Dr. Ehtesham to the Appeals Council.
On July 30, 2009, Blanken was admitted to Ridegview at Bristol Regional Medical Center, ("Ridgeview"), on a temporary detention order, for suicidal ideations and self-inflicted lacerations. (R. at 313-81.) She reported not having taken any antipsychotic medications for approximately one and one-half years due to losing her insurance. (R. at 321.) Blanken reported hearing voices telling her that she was better off dead and to "pack her stuff and go away." (R. at 317.) She further reported hearing her deceased dog and thinking the dog was still in her house. (R. at 317.) She stated that she felt like someone was standing behind her all the time, and she saw shadows in her peripheral vision. (R. at 317.) She was able to do serial 3's and to interpret proverbs correctly, and her intelligence was deemed to be within normal limits. (R. at 318.) Blanken reported drinking in the past, but being sober for a year until the previous month. (R. at 326.) Despite this statement, she also stated that she drank six beers the previous night. (R. at 366.) She reported that she sometimes took Lortab and smoked marijuana to self-medicate when she could not afford her prescriptions. (R. at 327.) Blanken was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, currently depressed with psychotic features; history of alcohol dependence; and a then-current Global Assessment of Functioning, ("GAF"),  score of 25. (R. at 319.) Her prognosis was deemed fair with treatment. (R. at 319.) Blanken received counseling during her stay at Ridgeview. (R. at 330-34.)
On August 1, 2009, Dr. Maria T. Liquete, M.D., a psychiatrist at Ridgeview, evaluated Blanken. (R. at 315-20.) Blanken reported, among other things, increasing severity of mood swings, irritability, racing thoughts and significant anxiety since being off of her medications. (R. at 321.) However, she reported no psychotic symptoms. (R. at 321.) Blanken insisted on being placed back on Klonopin. (R. at 321.) A drug screen was positive for benzodiazepines, marijuana and opiates. (R. at 321, 337-38.) Blanken minimized her drug and alcohol problems. (R. at 321.) While she admitted to being on Suboxone once in the past, she denied any problems with addiction, insisting that she had not used any addictive substances in several days. (R. at 321-22.) Dr. Liquete diagnosed bipolar disorder, currently mixed; alcohol dependence; rule out polysubstance dependence; and a then-current GAF score of about 20 to 30. (R. at 373.) By August 4, 2009, Blanken's mood showed marked improvement. (R. at 334.) She was discharged on that date with diagnoses of bipolar disorder; possible opiate and ...