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Stinnett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

February 8, 2017

JILL STINNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, 1 Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

         Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claim for supplemental security income benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seg. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). As reflected by the memoranda and argument submitted by the parties, the issues before this court are whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, and if it is not, whether plaintiff has met the burden of proof as prescribed by and pursuant to the Act. Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales. 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         The plaintiff, Jill R. Stinnett, was born on January 14, 1966 and eventually completed the eleventh grade in school. Mrs. Stinnett worked in the early 1990s as a screen printer. Apparently, she has not worked on a regular basis since her work as a screen printer. The Commissioner found that, given the length of time since plaintiffs last regular work activity, she has no "past relevant work" for purposes of her claim for supplemental security income benefits. (TR 1012). See 20 C.F.R. § 416.965.

         Mrs. Stinnett filed an application for supplemental security income benefits on August 27, 2007. Prior to that time, she had filed four other applications for disability insurance benefits. Indeed, by memorandum opinion and order entered March 21, 2003, this court affirmed the denial of one of plaintiff s earlier applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. See Stinnett v. Barnhart, Civil Action No. 2:01CV00132, (Jones, J.). It seems that, during the period of time prior to the court's decision in that earlier case, Mrs. Stinnett applied for and received supplemental security income benefits on the basis of a somatoform disorder. According to the most recent administrative hearing decision, Mrs. Stinnett's earlier period of entitlement to SSI benefits "was ceased apparently when her husband died in 2004 and she began receiving benefits for their son, at which point her resources exceeded the amount for SSID eligibility." (TR 971). Presumably, Mrs. Stinnett filed her current application when her family's entitlement to benefits on her deceased husband's wage earner's account ended.

         Mrs. Stinnett's most recent and current application was denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. She then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated April 1, 2010, the Law Judge also determined that plaintiff is not disabled. The Law Judge found that plaintiff suffers from severe impairments on the bases of degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, recent left knee injury, history of alcohol and drug abuse, tobacco abuse with shortness of breath, major depressive disorder with anxiety, and a remote history of seizures and headaches. However, the Law Judge ruled that Mrs. Stinnett retains sufficient functional capacity to perform a limited range of light exertion. (TR 19-20). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering Mrs. Stinnett's age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge held that plaintiff retains the capacity to perform several specific light work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. (TR 25). Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that plaintiff is not disabled, and that she is not entitled to supplemental security income benefits. See gen., 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Mrs. Stinnett appealed to this court.

         By memorandum opinion and order entered June 21, 2012, the court remanded plaintiffs case to the Commissioner for further consideration and development. The court found that there was substantial evidence to support the Law Judge's determination that plaintiff retains sufficient physical capacity to engage in light levels of work in which she is permitted to change position at will. However, the court determined that the Law Judge's assessment of plaintiff s nonexertional impairments, consisting of depression, anxiety, and somatoform disorder, was not supported by substantial evidence. The court noted that reports from two treating psychologists confirmed that Mrs. Stinnett experiences a significant level of emotional dysfunction. While the Law Judge had discounted both psychological reports, noting that one psychologist had only seen Mrs. Stinnett on two occasions, the court found that the reports were essentially consistent. The court went on to summarize the psychological evidence as follows:

Dr. Douglas Keffer submitted reports covering his treatment of plaintiff from May 16, 2006 to March 5, 2008. Based on his clinical evaluation, Dr. Keffer diagnosed adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood. At the time of his initial examination, Dr. Keffer noted a GAF of 42, with highest GAF in the past year as 45. Dr. Keffer's treatment notes indicate that Mrs. Stinnett experienced significant fluctuation in her symptomatology. At the time of his last clinical note on December 11, 2007, Dr. Keffer noted that plaintiffs overall condition was "about the same." (TR 368). Mrs. Stinnett ceased treating with Dr. Keffer because she could no longer afford his services.
About two years later, on January 12, 2010, Mrs. Stinnett saw Dr. Lola Byrd, another psychologist. At the time of initial interview, Dr. Byrd performed several psychological tests. A Beck Depression Inventory revealed a moderate level of depression. Based on the tests, and her own clinical observation, Dr. Byrd diagnosed recurrent major depression, moderate severity, and panic disorder. Dr. Byrd noted a GAF of 65. On February 16, 2010, Dr. Byrd completed a medical assessment of plaintiff s mental ability for work-related activities. Dr. Byrd noted limited to seriously limited capacity for most work-related emotional functions. She estimated that plaintiffs emotional difficulties would cause her to be absent from work more than three times per month. (TR 489). As previously noted, when asked to consider the impact of Dr. Byrd's psychological findings, the vocational expert indicated that such limitations would render Mrs. Stinnett disabled for all forms of work.

Stinnett v. Astrue. Civil Action No. 7:11CV00282, 2012 WL 2367186, at *3 (W.D. Va. June 21, 2012)(footnotes omitted).

         Given the psychological findings from two mental health specialists who actually saw and examined Mrs. Stinnett, the court concluded that the Law Judge's reliance on a mental health evaluation performed by a nonexamining state agency psychologist was not supported by substantial evidence, especially since that evaluation was completed before receipt of Dr. Byrd's psychological study. However, the court found that there was "good cause for remand, " noting that Dr. Byrd's report left open the question as to whether Mrs. Stinnett's emotional dysfunction was permanent, or subject to appropriate treatment and control through a reasonable treatment regimen. The court remanded the case with the expectation that the Commissioner would collect additional medical evidence, engage in further consideration, and address the deficiencies in the Administrative Law Judge's opinion.

         Following the court's order of remand, the Commissioner assigned Mrs. Stinnett's case to a different Administrative Law Judge for a de novo hearing and review. Prior to the supplemental hearing, the state disability agency arranged for consultative examinations by Dr. Sung-Joon Cho, a physical medicine specialist, and by Dr. Roger DeLapp, a psychologist.[2] The Law Judge sent medial interrogatories to another psychologist, Dr. Gary Bennett, and Dr. Laurie Rennie, an internist. Both Dr. Bennett and Dr. Rennie conducted record reviews, though neither specialist actually examined Mrs. Stinnett. Following a supplemental administrative hearing on December 17, 2012, the second Law Judge produced an opinion on August 29, 2013. The Law Judge determined that Mrs. Stinnett suffers from a combination of severe impairments, including obesity; degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; left knee injury status-post 2010 left knee arthroscopy; hypertension; major depressive disorder; anxiety and history of panic; pain disorder with psychological factors and history of chronic opioid use; tobacco abuse with shortness of breath; and headaches. (TR 972). Despite this combination of impairments, the Law Judge determined that Mrs. Stinnett retains sufficient functional capacity for unskilled, sedentary work activity. Given such a residual functional capacity, and after consideration of plaintiff s age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge ruled that plaintiff retains sufficient functional capacity to perform several specific sedentary work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. (TR 1169). Accordingly, the Law Judge concluded that Mrs. Stinnett is not entitled to supplemental security income benefits. See gen,, 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

         Mrs. Stinnett again sought review of the unfavorable decision by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. On June 17, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the same Administrative Law Judge for further proceedings. (TR 1183-87). Stated succinctly, the Appeals Council determined that the Law Judge failed to properly evaluate certain of the physical limitations identified by Dr. Rennie. (TR 1186). The Appeals Council also noted that the Law Judge did not account for certain of Dr. Cho's findings in the hypothetical presented to the vocational expert at the administrative hearing. (TR 1186). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Appeals Council observed that the Law Judge did not provide any rationale for rejecting Dr. Byrd's earlier psychological report, in which it was noted that plaintiff would be absent from work more than three times per month. (TR 1186).

         Following additional administrative proceedings, including yet another administrative hearing and post-hearing medical interrogatory responses from Dr. Louis Fuchs, the Administrative Law Judge produced another opinion on April 3, 2015. (TR 971-1014). As might be suggested by the length of the opinion, the Law Judge undertook an extremely detailed and thorough evaluation of all of the medical evidence of record. Noting that his earlier opinion had been remanded but not vacated, the Administrative Law Judge apparently adopted his earlier findings as to plaintiffs "severe impairments." (TR 975). Relying largely on the interrogatory responses of Dr. Rennie and Dr. Fuchs, the Law Judge determined that plaintiff retains sufficient physical capacity to engage in a limited range of sedentary exertion. (TR 1003). The Law Judge went on to assess Mrs. Stinnett's residual functional capacity as follows:

Beginning July 1, 2007, through at least the date of this decision, I hold that, due to the combination of her impairments, the claimant has retained the exertional residual functional capacity to lift and/or carry up to 10 pounds continuously and up to 20 pounds frequently. She can sit a total of eight hours in an eight hour workday for one hour at a time, stand a total of three hours for one hour at a time, and walk a total of three hours for one hour at a time. She does not require the use of a cane to ambulate. She can continuously perform reaching with the right hand and left hand, including overhead reaching, and frequently perform handling, fingering, feeling, pushing/pulling with the right and left hand. She can occasionally operate foot controls with the right foot and left foot. She can frequently climb ramps and stairs, but no ladders, ropes, or scaffolding. She can frequently balance, and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She must avoid exposure to extremes of cold, heat, and vibrations. She can tolerate occasional exposure to humidity or wetness, frequently operate a motor vehicle, and can tolerate continuous exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. Her mental impairments limit her to ...

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