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Susan Lancaster v. Michael J. Astrue

October 31, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge George J. Limbert


Plaintiff requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Susan Lancaster's Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The Plaintiff asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in his November 4, 2009 decision in finding that Plaintiff was not disabled because she has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work (Tr 8-22). The Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision for the following reasons:


Plaintiff, Susan Lancaster, filed her application for DIB and SSI on January 22, 2007, alleging she became disabled on March 15, 2003 due to bipolar disorder and various physical impairments (Tr. 147-159). Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 97-112, 116-129). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and on October 7, 2009, a hearing was held where Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified before an ALJ (Tr. 23-55) and a vocational expert, also testified (Tr. 50-54).

On November 4, 2009, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Plaintiff not to be disabled (Tr.8-22). Plaintiff requested a review before the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-7, 265-268). Therefore, Plaintiff has requested judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).


Plaintiff was thirty-six years old as of March 15, 2003, her alleged disability onset date (Tr. 136). She has a high school diploma and completed trade school for executive secretarial training (Tr.31). Plaintiff previously worked jobs such as administrative assistant and optical systems specialist. (Tr. 212).


Plaintiff saw psychiatrist Gregory Noveske, M.D., from February 1998 until May 2005 (Tr. 366). Dr. Noveske reported in February 2006 that Plaintiff had "{s}ome depression" and "{s}ome difficulties interpersonally with irritability" (Tr. 367). He opined that Plaintiff had no restrictions on her daily activities due to psychiatric issues, had a "fair" ability to tolerate stress, and experienced a fair response to treatment (Tr. 367-68).

In June 2006, Deborah Koricke, Ph.D., performed a psychological evaluation (Tr. 399-402). Plaintiff denied having ever undergone psychiatric hospitalization, but indicated that she had to take medications to maintain her mood (id.). She told Dr. Koricke that she spent the majority of her days caring for her children, and she enjoyed watching her children play sports and participate in other activities (Tr. 401). Dr. Koricke opined that Plaintiff was moderately impaired in her ability to relate to others; maintain attention, concentration, persistence, and pace; and withstand the stress and pressure of daily work activity (Tr. 402). She found Plaintiff mildly impaired in her ability to understand, remember, and follow instructions (id.). Dr. Koricke assigned Plaintiff a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score of 43 (id.), which indicates serious mental impairment symptoms. DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL OF MENTAL DISORDERS (DSM) at 34 (4th ed. 2009). A year later, Dr. Koricke examined Plaintiff again and affirmed most of her opinions (Tr. 642-46). Dr. Koricke noted that Plaintiff's mood swings "decreased in intensity with her medication" (Tr. 644).

State agency reviewing doctor Roseann Umana, Ph.D., completed a mental residual functional capacity assessment in July 2006 (Tr. 438-55). Dr. Umana opined that Plaintiff was able to understand, remember, and carry out simple and some more complex instructions (Tr. 440). Plaintiff's social functioning was "adequate for superficial and occasional interactions" (id.). Dr. Umana found Plaintiff's stress tolerance was adequate for low-stress work and settings that did not require adherence to strict time and production standards (id.).

Plaintiff stopped seeing Dr. Noveske because her insurance changed (Tr. 597, 745). She began psychiatric treatment at the Far West Center in May 2006 (Tr. 744-51). Plaintiff reported that her medications helped manage her symptoms and caused no side effects (id.). She was "doing okay," staying busy, and taking care of her children (Tr. 597). Josephine Sabharwal, M.D., and her colleague Wendy Scott, Ed. D., P.C., assigned Plaintiff a GAF score of 60 (Tr. 598, 744), which is at the high end of "moderate" symptoms. DSM at 34. Plaintiff was prescribed medication and visited Dr. Sabharwal and Far West Center social workers on a near-monthly basis through March 2007 (Tr. 599-610, 724-44). Plaintiff repeatedly reported that her mood was "okay" or "fine" and stabilized on medication (Tr. 600, 602, 603, 606).

In April 2007, state agency doctor Nancy McCarthy, Ph.D., reviewed Plaintiffs's file and completed a functional capacity assessment (Tr. 651-68). Dr. McCarthy opined that Plaintiff was not significantly limited in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions, work close to others, and interact appropriately with the general public (Tr. 651-52). She gave weight to the "totality of the evidence in the file" and concluded that Plaintiff retained "significant capacity for some types of work and would function optimally in a work environment that does not involve strict production quotas, pressure to perform rapidly or extensive contact with others" (Tr. 653-54). Another state agency reviewing doctor, Melanie Bergsten, Ph.D., affirmed Dr. McCarthy's opinion in September 2007 (Tr. 707).

Dr. Sabharwal left Far West Center in March 2007 (Tr. 724). Thus, Plaintiff started seeing Raul Hizon, M.D., several months later (Tr. 716-23). Plaintiff routinely reported a stable mood and Dr. Hizon noted "good" activities of daily living (Tr. 719, 722, 864, 866, 867). On numerous occasions, Dr. Hizon recorded that Plaintiff exhibited or reported no major depressive or manic symptoms (Tr. 860, 862, 920). In June 2009, Plaintiff reported feeling more stress because of family issues (Tr. 958), but the following month Plaintiff was calm and stable with "no signs of impairment" (Tr. 957). She felt "less distressed" in August 2009 (Tr. 955). One week later, Plaintiff's ...

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