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Carr v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio

June 19, 2017

SHARON CARR, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER [Resolving Docs. 1, 20]

          JAMES S. GWIN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE:

         On May 24, 2016, Plaintiff Sharon Carr sued to reverse a disability insurance benefits denial.[1] On May 22, 2017, Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Parker recommended affirming the Commissioner's denial of benefits.[2] Plaintiff Carr filed timely objections.[3]

         For the reasons stated below, this Court OVERRULES Plaintiff's objections and ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Recommendation.

         I. Background

         On September 4, 2012, Plaintiff Carr applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[4]With the application, the Plaintiff claimed a February 12, 2012, onset date.[5] Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and was denied upon reconsideration.[6]

         Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”).[7] After an October 30, 2014, hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim.[8] The ALJ found that Plaintiff Carr has organic mental disorder, affective disorders, and anxiety disorders. However, the ALJ found that her impairments do not rise to the level of disability.[9] The ALJ stated that Carr's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is sufficient to work with certain limitations.[10]

         The ALJ relied on various doctor and professional opinions in reaching his decision.

         Dr. Cynthia Griggins, Ph.D., treated Carr from April 2012 to May 2013. At the beginning of treatment, Dr. Griggins noted that Carr had difficulty learning words and was “outside the average range” in memory competency.[11] Throughout treatment, Dr. Griggins found Carr progressing in some areas but lagging in others. For example, Dr. Griggins noted improvement in Carr's ability to remember stories and learn new technologies, but also found deficiencies in her ability to learn new words.[12]

         In March 2013, Dr. Griggins found that Carr's self-identified memory problems were sometimes comprehension problems.[13] Griggins also noted that Carr had excellent memory compensatory strategies.[14]

         Finally, in May 2013, Dr. Griggins told Carr that her issues remembering contents of certain conversations and comprehending what she reads is a common problem for all people with average memory retention.[15] Carr's memory loss caused a lack of confidence and a fear of getting back into the workplace-both of which exacerbated her memory problems.[16] Dr. Griggins advised Carr to build her confidence.[17]

         From January to May 2014, Carr met with Cynthia Carleton, a vocational rehabilitation counselor and job coach. Carleton assisted Carr to work at Carr's mother's travel agency. Carleton reported that Car's confidence, customer service, and information processing skills improved throughout.[18]

         In October 2012, occupational therapist Cynthia Anderson completed a work evaluation for Carr. She concluded that Carr had deficits in delayed recall and memory retention, but was successfully implementing strategies to improve those skills.[19] Anderson found that Carr “had the potential to return to gainful employment with completion of vocational retraining.”[20]

         Based on these various opinions, state agency psychological consultant Dr. Bruce Goldsmith, Ph.D., found that Plaintiff Carr could “perform a wide range of simple, repetitive tasks involving superficial contact with others in a setting free of strict production standards or fact pace.”[21] The ALJ used Goldsmith's opinion as the basis for his RFC finding.[22]

         Following the ALJ's denial of Plaintiff Carr's claim, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.[23]

         On May 24, 2016, Plaintiff Carr brought a claim in this Court for wrongful denial of disability insurance benefits.[24] Plaintiff argues that the ALJ (1) confused the difference between short-term and long-term memory loss; (2) considered Griggins, Anderson, and Carleton's opinions without incorporating their findings in the RFC; and (3) did not consider Carr's non-severe impairments in determining her RFC.[25]

         On May 22, 2017, Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Parker recommended affirming the Commissioner's denial of benefits.[26] In the report and recommendation (“R&R”), Magistrate Judge Parker found that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision.

         The Magistrate Judge's R&R finds that Goldsmith, Griggins, Fastenau, and Carleton's opinions provide substantial evidence for the ALJ's decision.[27] The R&R also addresses and dismisses Plaintiff's three specific arguments.

         Specifically, the R&R found (1) the ALJ consistently recognized short-term memory problems; (2) the RFC properly explained Carr's maximum ability rather than her best or ideal environment; and (3) the ALJ properly considered Carr's non-server impairments but did not find them to cause functional limitations in the workplace.[28]

         On June 15, 2016, Plaintiff Carr filed objections to the R&R.[29] Carr argues that Magistrate Judge Parker misapplied the law and misinterpreted evidence when he concluded that substantial evidence supported the RFC.

         II. Legal Standard

         In reviewing an ALJ's disability determination under the Social Security Act, a district court reviews whether the ALJ's decision is “supported by substantial evidence and [is] made pursuant to proper legal standards.”[30] Substantial evidence is defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”[31]

         A district court is limited in what it can review. Specifically, a district court should not try to resolve “conflicts in evidence or decide questions of credibility.”[32] A district court also may not reverse an ALJ's decision when substantial evidence supports it, even if the court would have made a different decision.[33]

         Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance.[34]This Court cannot reverse the ALJ's decision, even if substantial record evidence would have supported an opposite conclusion, so long as substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion.[35]

         To establish disability under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must show that she cannot engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.”[36] Agency regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation for use in determining whether a claimant is disabled.[37]

         III. Discussion

         This Court reviews Carr's objections de novo.[38] Carr argues that the substantial evidence does not support the RFC. This Court disagrees. The ALJ molded the RFC from state agency psychological consultant Dr. Bruce Goldsmith's, Ph.D., well-informed evaluation.

         Dr. Goldsmith reviewed Carr's file and relied on Dr. Griggins' evaluations. Specifically, based on Griggins' notes, Goldsmith found that Carr's emotions were her “biggest” issue.[39]Although Carr's memory is “moderately impaired, ” her condition worsens from a “lack of confidence [and] anxiety.”[40]

         Dr. Goldsmith also relied on vocational rehabilitation counselor Cynthia Carleton's evaluation. Carleton accompanied Carr to work at Carr's mother's travel agency. Based on Carleton's notes, Dr. Goldsmith found that Carr “was diligent and successful using strategies for memory and task completion.”[41] Goldsmith noted that Carr's “lack of understanding” may be related not only to “changes in her brain” but also “difficulty accepting her disability.”[42]

         Dr. Goldsmith reasonably relied on Dr. Griggins' and Carleton's evaluations in forming his RFC. Dr. Griggins met with Carr multiple times over a one-year period, observed her memory improving with time, and recognized that Carr's self-confidence was perhaps more debilitating than her memory loss. Carleton observed Carr succeeding in a workplace setting when she applied certain coping mechanisms and memory recall strategies.

         Based on these observations, Dr. Goldsmith found that Carr could “perform . . . a wide range of simple, repetitive tasks involving superficial contact with others in a setting free of strict production standards or fast pace.”[43]

         The ALJ relied heavily on Dr. Goldsmith's recommendation in deciding Carr's RFC. The ALJ found that Carr has the capacity “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant is able to understand, remember, and carry out instructions to perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at a production rate pace (i.e. assembly line work). The claimant's ability to deal with changes in the work setting is limited to simple, work-related decisions.”[44]

         Record evidence supports the RFC. Carr successfully worked at her mother's travel agency and Carr can use the same ...


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