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Cassandra Rouse v. Commissioner of Social Security

November 21, 2011

CASSANDRA ROUSE,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge James R. Knepp, II

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Introduction

Plaintiff Cassandra Rouse appeals the administrative denial of supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 1383. The District Court has jurisdiction over this case under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the undersigned in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Civil Rule 73. (Doc. 15). For the reasons given below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's denial of benefits.

Background

Plaintiff comes from an abusive and dysfunctional family. (Tr. 244). She first filed for SSI benefits on March 4, 2002, and was 43 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision on the current application. (Tr. 34, 306). She finished the 10th grade before dropping out of school but has since received her GED and become certified as a nursing assistant. (Tr. 307).

Medical History

Plaintiff has a history of morbid obesity. (Tr. 141). As a result of her weight, she complains of poor circulation and difficulty standing up. (Tr. 307). She has been diagnosed with bronchial asthma and sleep apnea, though she still smokes six to eight cigarettes a day. (Tr. 169--170). On a good day, she can walk a block but not up a flight of steps. (Tr. 169). Plaintiff also has a history of drug-related incarcerations, but claims she has not used drugs since 1999. (Tr. 166).

In April 2004, Plaintiff was diagnosed with upper airway resistance syndrome, circadian rhythm disorders, PLM and other parasomnias, idiopathic hypersomnia, narcolepsy, and EBV, ECHO, and Hepatitis infections. (Tr. 144). Plaintiff has been hospitalized for breathing problems multiple times, most recently in 2004. (Tr. 132--135, 169). As a result of her sleep apnea, Plaintiff uses nasal C-PAP at night. (Tr. 169). Plaintiff also has intermittent edema and chest pain when her breathing is tight. (Tr. 169).

At the time Plaintiff filed for SSI benefits, in December 2005, she complained of asthma, depression, anger, suicidal tendencies, auditory hallucinations, and excessive tiredness. (Tr. 76, 87). Plaintiff further asserts her memory is poor. (Tr. 86). According to her medical records, she has difficulty recalling dates, events, and facts in her medical history. (Tr. 170). She underwent an initial psychiatric evaluation at the Murtis H. Taylor Multi-Service Center in March 2006 (Tr. 243), where she was diagnosed with depression, post traumatic stress disorder, polysubstance abuse, and personality disorder. (Tr. 245A). The nurse at Murtis Taylor noted in her findings that Plaintiff had dangerous tendencies and had hit her 2--3 year old nephew in the head. (Tr. 243). Since then, Plaintiff has been attending Murtis Taylor for psychiatry appointments every two weeks. (Tr. 301). The records from Murtis Taylor indicate "poor compliance" by Plaintiff with treatment on multiple occasions. (Tr. 233, 236, 238). They also report Plaintiff cutting herself in January 2007 (Tr. 235), having dangerous impulses (Tr. 239, 242), and attempting to hurt others (Tr. 243).

Plaintiff was evaluated by psychologist Sandy Felker, Ph.D., in March 2006. (Tr. 165). Dr. Felker diagnosed Plaintiff with an unspecified type of mood disorder and an antisocial personality disorder. (Tr. 167). She concluded Plaintiff has a moderate impairment in her ability to concentrate and attend to tasks and a serious impairment in her occupational functioning. (Tr. 167).

Also in March 2006, Franklin Krause, M.D., examined Plaintiff for her physical impairments and noted "her emotional problems have been evaluated elsewhere." (Tr. 169--170). According to Dr. Krause, Plaintiff is capable of self care and "carries on all activities of daily living" despite her bronchial asthma and sleep apnea. (Tr. 170).

Administrative Hearing

Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before the ALJ on November 10, 2008. (Tr. 295). In her testimony she explained she lives in the basement of her son's ex-girlfriend's house and only leaves the basement to use the bathroom and eat. (Tr. 299--300). Plaintiff testified that she was "scared to go outside because it's so hard out there." (Tr. 304). She said she had been held up at gunpoint the week before the hearing. (Tr. 304).

Plaintiff admitted to considering suicide at times in the past. (Tr. 303). She also admitted to cutting herself on at least one occasion. (Tr. 303). When the ALJ inquired into her emotions, Plaintiff said she feels depressed, helpless, and useless every day. (Tr., 309). She testified her medications offer no relief from her depression. (Tr. 310).

Plaintiff testified she first received psychiatric help after hearing the voices of her deceased relatives. (Tr. 298). The treatment providers at Murtis Taylor give her samples of the medication Invega because she has no money to buy it, and Plaintiff takes these pills every day to help stop the voices she hears. (Tr. 301). Despite the medication, she said she still hears voices every day, which makes her so afraid she sleeps with the lights on and does not go outside. (Tr. 298-299).

Plaintiff testified her weight made it difficult to have a job because she has trouble standing and lifting anything. (Tr. 307). Also, Plaintiff said she had lost her job at Goodwill because she was falling asleep too much. (Tr. 308). She attends church about twice a month -- where she feels better but sometimes falls asleep -- if she can get a ride. (Tr. 315--316).

Plaintiff was asked about her temper, in response to which she said that when she has all of her grandchildren over they make her so mad she "just want[s] to squeeze their head." (Tr. 318). Otherwise, Plaintiff testified she is able to get along with people okay. (Tr. 311). She occasionally travels to Columbus to visit her mother, and is able to go grocery shopping (and interact with the cashier) without difficulty as long as she gets a ride. (Tr. 314--315).

Plaintiff reported sleeping with sticks by her bed because she "be hearing things" and sees shadows from outside that make her nervous. (Tr. 317). Plaintiff said she keeps a bucket in the basement to use the bathroom because sometimes she is too scared to go upstairs on account of the noises she hears. (Tr. 318).

Also testifying at the hearing was Bruce Holderead, a vocational expert. (Tr. 319). Mr. Holderead testified that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's impairments would still be able to perform the unskilled occupations of "cleaner, industrial", "cleaner II", and "laundry worker", each of which accounts for thousands of positions in the regional economy. (Tr. 320).

Standard of Review

In reviewing the denial of Social Security benefits, the Court "must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record." Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Besaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 966 F.2d 1028, 1030 (6th Cir. 1992). The Commissioner's findings "as to any fact if supported by substantial evidence shall be conclusive." McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Even if substantial evidence or indeed a preponderance of the evidence supports a claimant's position, the court cannot overturn "so long as substantial evidence also supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ." Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 477 (6th Cir. 2003).

Standard for Disability

Eligibility for SSI is predicated on the existence of a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a). "Disability" is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner follows a five-step evaluation process -- found at 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 -- to determine if a claimant is disabled:

1. Was claimant engaged in a substantial gainful activity?

2. Did claimant have a medically determinable impairment, or a combination of impairments, that is "severe," which is defined as one which substantially limits an ...


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