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Mathias v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

August 31, 2017

JULIE MATHIAS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GEORGE J. LIMBERT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Julie Mathias (“Plaintiff”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (“Defendant”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). ECF Dkt. #1. In her brief on the merits, filed on December 11, 2016, Plaintiff asserts that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) failed to state a valid reason for rejecting the opinion of her treating physician. ECF Dkt. #15 at 11-20. Defendant filed a response brief on February 17, 2017. ECF Dkt. #18. On March 1, 2017, Plaintiff filed a reply brief. ECF Dkt. #19.

         For the following reasons, the Court REVERSES the ALJ's decision and REMANDS Plaintiff's case for an evaluation of the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician in accordance with the treating physician rule.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed her application for SSI in October 2013. ECF Dkt. #12 (“Tr.”) at 172.[2] In her application, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on February 18, 2012. Id. The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 112-19. Following the denial, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on August 17, 2015. Id. at 35. On September 1, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for SSI. Id. at 16. Subsequently, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. Id. at 1. Accordingly, the decision issued by the ALJ on September 1, 2015, stands as the final decision.

         On August 19, 2016, Plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF Dkt. #1. Plaintiff filed a brief on the merits on December 11, 2016. ECF Dkt. #15. Defendant filed a response brief on February 17, 2017. ECF Dkt. #18. On March 1, 2017, Plaintiff filed a reply brief. ECF Dkt. #19.

         II. SUMMARY OF RELEVANT PORTIONS OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         In the decision issued on September 1, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 21, 2013, the date of her application for SSI. Tr. at 21. Continuing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: multiple sclerosis (“MS”); cervical degenerative disc disease; contraction of the visual field in better eye; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; panic disorder; and alcohol abuse. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.

         After consideration of the record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except she: could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; must avoid workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery; could not perform commercial driving; must avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes of hot and cold; could not work with vibrating hand tools; was limited to simple, routine tasks that did not involve arbitration, negotiation, confrontation, directing the work of others, or being responsible for the safety of others; could not perform rate work or assembly line work; and could use frequent depth perception. Tr. at 23-24.

         When discussing her RFC, the ALJ addressed the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Timothy Carrabine, M.D. See Tr. at 27-28. Dr. Carrabine limited Plaintiff to: lifting less than five pounds for one-third of the day; and standing/walking for less than one hour total during the day, and less than twenty minutes at a time. Id. at 27. Continuing, the ALJ stated that Dr. Carrabine indicated that Plaintiff would need to take an unscheduled break every hour, but did not need to use a cane. Id. The ALJ indicated that Dr. Carrabine limited Plaintiff to performing manipulations and reaching less than ten percent of the day. Additionally, the ALJ stated that Dr. Carradine opined that Plaintiff would be off task more then twenty-five percent of the day and would miss more than four days of work per month. Id.

         The ALJ then indicated that little weight was afforded to Dr. Carrabine's opinion as to Plaintiff's physical limitations as the opinion was not supported by the conservative treatment, a lack of multiple hospitalizations, the MRI results, and Plaintiff's activities of daily living. Tr. at 27. Continuing, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff's activities of daily living did not support her allegations regarding her MS, as she had: lived with her eighty-one -year-old grandmother since 2013 and provided “a lot of care for her grandmother”; went to the grocery store; washed the laundry; talked with her friends on the phone; read and watched television; prepared simple meals; performed light housework; shopped for personal items; and socialized with friends a few times a week. Id. Additionally, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff did not drive, but this was because her license had lapsed rather than on the order of any of her doctors. Id.

         The ALJ also addressed the form Dr. Carrabine completed regarding Plaintiff's mental limitations. Tr. at 28. According to the ALJ, Dr. Carrabine opined that Plaintiff was essentially unable to perform in many areas, including: remembering work procedures; understanding detailed instructions; maintaining attention and concentration; performing activities within a schedule; working in coordination or in proximity to others; accepting instructions and criticism from supervisors; responding appropriately to changes; traveling to unfamiliar places; and setting realistic goals. Id. The ALJ stated that Dr. Carrabine opined that Plaintiff would miss work more than four days a month, would need four unscheduled breaks a day, and would be off task twenty percent of the day. Id. After describing Dr. Carrabine's opinion, the ALJ stated that the opinion was being afforded no weight since Dr. Carrabine was not a mental health professional and did not treat Plaintiff's mental health problems. Id. Continuing, the ALJ stated that while Dr. Carrabine may have had some insight on Plaintiff's cognitive deficits due to her MS, his extreme opinion was inconsistent with her conservative treatment, activities of daily living, and the medical evidence of record. Id. The ALJ concluded his discussion of Dr. Carrabine's opinion regarding Plaintiff's mental limitations by stating, “[a]n individual with such drastic mental limits would presumably not be able to care for an 81-year-old woman.” Id.

         Next, the ALJ indicated that Plaintiff had no past relevant work, was a younger individual on the date her application for SSI was filed, had at least a high school education, and was able to communicate in English. Tr. at 29. The ALJ stated that the transferability of job skills was not an issue because Plaintiff's past relevant work was unskilled. Id. Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Id. After making the above finding, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since October 21, 2013, the date her application for SSI was filed. Id. at 30.

         III. STEPS TO EVALUATE ENTITLEMENT TO SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

         An ALJ must proceed through the required sequential steps for evaluating entitlement to social ...


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