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Nadine Dennis v. William H. Baughman

October 20, 2011

NADINE DENNIS,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
WILLIAM H. BAUGHMAN, JR. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William H. Baughman, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND MAGISTRATE JUDGE

ORDER

Introduction

Before me*fn1 is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by Nadine Dennis seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Dennis's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income.*fn2 The Commissioner, in response, seeks affirmation of the denial of benefits.*fn3 Both parties have briefed their respective positions*fn4 and have participated in a telephonic oral argument before me on this matter.*fn5

For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision to deny Dennis's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income is hereby reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

Facts

A. Background

Dennis filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in March, 2004, alleging disability as of April 1, 2001.*fn6 Those applications were initially denied, as well as upon reconsideration.*fn7 Subsequently, Dennis obtained a hearing on her applications, which hearing ultimately resulted in a decision from an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denying the applications.*fn8 That decision was then vacated by the Appeals Council and the matter remanded for a second hearing before an ALJ.*fn9 Following that hearing, at which Dennis appeared and testified, the ALJ denied Dennis's claim on January 29, 2009.*fn10 When the Appeals Council denied Dennis's request for review in September, 2009, the ALJ's decision became final.*fn11

B. The ALJ's decision

The findings of the ALJ are organized around the evidence as viewed under the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in the regulations.*fn12

At step one, the ALJ concluded that Dennis had not engaged in any disqualifying substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of her disability in April, 2001.*fn13

The ALJ found at step two that Dennis had six "severe impairments:"

(1) fibromyalgia; (2) plantar fasciitis and tendonitis in both feet; (3) degenerative joint disease in both knees; (4) an affective disorder; (5) psychological factors affecting a medical condition; and (6) a personality disorder.*fn14

In the evaluation at step three, the ALJ concluded that none of these impairments -- either alone or in combination -- met or medically equaled any of the listed impairments.*fn15

I observe that the ALJ particularly noted that his conclusion here was expressly supported by the specific opinions of the state agency reviewing psychologists.*fn16 By contrast, the ALJ acknowledged that "if fully credited, the opinions of Ms. Dennis' treating psychiatrists would lead to the conclusion that Ms. Dennis' affective disorder(s) was/were of listing-level severity."*fn17 The ALJ rejected that conclusion for two stated reasons: (1) if Dennis's mental functioning was as bad as described by her treating psychiatrists, Dennis should be in a hospital; and (2) some of these opinions by treating sources "are directly contradicted by the record."*fn18

After the step three analysis, the ALJ made a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment.*fn19 In that respect, the ALJ determined:

Since the April 1, 2001 alleged onset date, and with the exception of possible briefer periods of less than 12 continuous months, Ms. Dennis has retained the residual functional capacity to perform all the basic work activities described in 20 CFR 404.1521, 404.1545, 416.921 and 416.945 within the following parameters: she has been able to lift, carry, push or pull up to 10 pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally; and she has been able to sit with normal breaks for six hours in an eight-hour period; and she has been able to stand and/or walk with normal breaks for six hours in an eight-hour period. Non-exertionally, Ms. Dennis has not been able to perform work where she would have to climb ramps, stairs, ladders or scaffolds on a more than frequent basis. Similarly, Ms. Dennis has not been able to perform work where she would have to balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl on a more than frequent basis. On account of her mental impairments, Ms. Dennis has been limited to simple, routine work where she would not have to have more than superficial interactions with co-workers, or more than occasional interactions with members of public. In addition, Ms. Dennis has not been able to perform work where she would have to engage in negotiations or confrontations with others.*fn20

In the step four analysis, the ALJ found that Dennis had done past relevant work as a clerical worker and as a security guard.*fn21 The ALJ further found that Dennis's RFC would preclude her from performing that past relevant work.*fn22

At step five, the ALJ concluded that, given her RFC, Dennis's vocational profile (younger individual, limited education, and able to communicate in English), and the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), there were a significant number of jobs available locally, state-wide, and nationally that Dennis could perform.*fn23 Accordingly, the ALJ found that Dennis was not disabled, thereby denying her applications for benefits.*fn24

C. Dennis's arguments

Dennis here makes two major arguments in favor of reversing the decision of the ALJ. First, she contends that the ALJ improperly substituted his opinion for that of the treating physicians.*fn25 Next, she maintains that the ALJ's assessment of her mental and physical residual functional capacity is not supported by substantial evidence.*fn26

As concerns the ALJ's treatment of the treating sources' opinions, Dennis acknowledges that the ALJ is permitted to resolve conflicts in testimony, but states that, if the evidence is properly understood, in this ...


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