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Shoop v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

June 4, 2019

STACEY SHOOP, Plaintiff,



         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Stacey Shoop applied for Supplemental Security Income on April 15, 2014, asserting she could no longer work due to her mental impairments and hepatitis C. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing, after which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Elizabeth A Motta concluded that she was not eligible for benefits because she is not under a “disability” as defined in the Social Security Act.

         Plaintiff brings this case challenging the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income. She seeks a remand of this case for payment of benefits or, at a minimum, for further proceedings. The Commissioner asks the Court to affirm ALJ Motta's non-disability decision.

         The case is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (Doc. #11), the Commissioner's Memorandum in Opposition (Doc. #15), Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. #16), and the administrative records (Doc. #s 6, 10).

         II. Background

         In April 2014, when Plaintiff filed her application for benefits, she was forty-three years old and was therefore considered a “younger person” under Social Security Regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c). She has a high school education. See Id. § 416.964(b)(4).

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the hearing before ALJ Motta she is unable to work because of her anxiety. (Doc. #10, PageID #793). When she is anxious, she feels “uncomfortable in [her] skin … and shaky a little bit.” Id. at 805. She also has manic bipolar disorder. Id. at 797.

         Plaintiff has trouble concentrating. Id. at 803. She explained, “my mind goes pretty quick and then I crash, and I have to sleep … for a few hours. I get started on things and then I can't finish them.” Id. at 793. She takes medication and it helps her some. Id. She testified that she “can't not be on medication.” Id. at 797. However, her psychiatrist left and his replacement took her off one her medications. Id. at 794. She does not think her new doctor is good for her and hopes to find a new psychiatrist. Id. at 794-95.

         Plaintiff acknowledged her history of substance abuse. Id. at 798. She has been incarcerated seven times-all related to drugs. Id. at 793. To her credit, at the time of the hearing, she had not used drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes for four years and three months. Id. at 798.

         When asked if she looked for work after her most recent release from prison, Plaintiff testified that she did at first but not recently because “[n]ot a whole lot of people like my [criminal] record.” Id. at 799. Since her release, “my main goal is to stay off drugs … and get my mental health in order.” Id. at 800.

         Plaintiff lives with her fourteen-year-old son and his godfather. Id. at 790. She is able to prepare simple meals and do laundry. Id. at 799, 805. She drives about every other day. Id. at 790-91. However, she does not like to drive long distances or at night. Id. at 804. She has no problems going to the store or shopping. Id. at 799. She attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings approximately three times per week and regularly attends church. Id. at 801-02. She does not have a lot of friends. Id. at 800.

         B. Medical Opinions

         i. Darke County Mental Health Providers

         In June 2014, Plaintiff's treating therapist, Dianna E. Burgess, MS, PC, opined in a letter to Job & Family Services that Plaintiff was unable to work “due to the nature of her symptoms and demonstrates the need to continue working to stabilize and regain her typical functioning in the community.” (Doc. #6, PageID #601).

         A few months later, in October 2014, Irfan Dahar, M.D.-Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist-and Ms. Burgess completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire. Id. at 628-31. Dr. Dahar diagnosed Bipolar I Disorder, Anxiety Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS), Polysubstance Dependence, and Personality Disorder NOS. Id. at 628. He opined that Plaintiff is markedly impaired in numerous areas of work-related mental functioning, including, for example, her ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; and work in coordination with others without being distracted by them. Id. at 630-31. Further, she would likely be absent from work more than three times a month due to her impairments and treatment. Id. at 630.

         In May 2015, Ms. Burgess opined that Plaintiff “suffers with moderate to severe mood episodes and distress situations with her anxiety.” Id. at 731. Further, she struggles with focus and has difficulty maintaining consistency in daily routines, schedules, and tasks. Id. She has “[m]oderate to severe difficulty” being around others because of social discomfort and the presence of mental health symptoms. Id.

         In September 2015, Phillip A. Hash, D.O., who also provided medication management to Plaintiff, and Ms. Burgess completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire. Id. at 733-37. He noted that Plaintiff “experiences frequent mental and physical agitations, mood changes/variations, irritability, depression, and anxiety.” Id. at 735. Further, she “is fairly motivated for treatment and appears to be very responsive to medication management/psychiatric services and individual treatment.” Id. He opined that she has marked deficiencies of concentration, persistence, or pace resulting in failure to complete tasks in a timely manner. Id. at 736. She would likely miss work at least three times per month because of her impairments or treatment. Id.

         In December 2015, Ms. Burgess opined that Plaintiff was “substantially affected” in all areas of work-related mental functioning. Id. at 739-40. She explained that Plaintiff has a “history of chronic and pervasive mental health symptoms and issues, which continuously impact her in her daily functioning and limit her in her abilities. Id.

         In March 2016, Ms. Burgess described the “wide spectrum” of Plaintiff's mood swings: “At times, she has presented as ‘low' in her mood with overt depressive symptoms, sadness, and feelings of being overwhelmed by life and all of its responsibilities. At other times, she has presented as very ‘high,' exhibiting strong traits of mania, with rapid and pressured speech, a tangential thought process, and seemingly impulsive thoughts, words, and actions.” Id. at 777. Plaintiff “has worked diligently to maintain her treatment with individual therapy, psychiatric services, and medication management.” Id. Although she tries to “maintain her typical life responsibilities and tasks” (she keeps a planner and makes herself reminders of what she needs to do), she struggles and “still often falls short in being able to do these things as efficiently and effectively as needed.” Id. at 777-78. Ms. Burgess concluded, “Ms. Shoop is deserving of support and would greatly benefit from any additional support that she is provided with in her life. She clearly exhibits the motivation and drive of someone wanting to receive and utilize appropriate help and puts forth great effort to be a healthy person. For all of her efforts, it appears that she continues to struggle in her life due to her mental health symptoms and issues.” Id. at 778.

         ii. Vicki Warren, Ph.D./Mary K. Hill, Ph.D.

         On July 9, 2014, Dr. Warren reviewed Plaintiff's record on behalf of the state agency. Id. at 116-26. She found that Plaintiff had two non-severe impairments-“Other and Unspecified Arthropathies” and Personality Disorder-and two severe impairments-Affective Disorder and Anxiety Disorder. Id. at 120. She opined that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in her activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in social functioning; moderate limitations in concentration, persistence and pace; and no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. Id. at 121. Dr. Warren adopted the Mental Residual Functional Capacity assessment from the July 21, 2011 administrative decision under Drummond v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir.1997) and Acquiescence Ruling 98-4(6). Id. at 124.

         Dr. Hill reviewed Plaintiff's record on December 29, 2014, and did not adopt the prior assessment. Id. at 133. Dr. Hill noted that Plaintiff's psychological symptoms will limit her concentration, persistence, and pace and her ability to tolerate normal work pressure. Id. at 137. She is limited to performing one-to-four-step tasks with no more than moderate pace or production quotas in a static environment where changes are explained and gradually introduced. Id. at 137-38. Dr. Hill, observing that Plaintiff has problems with irritability and was diagnosed with a personality disorder, opined that her interactions with others need to be on a superficial level with no conflict resolution or persuading others. Id. at 137.

         III. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Administration provides Supplemental Security Income to individuals who are under a “disability, ” among other eligibility requirements. Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470 (1986); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a). The term “disability”-as defined by the Social Security Act-has specialized meaning of limited scope. It encompasses “any medically determinable physical or mental impairment” that precludes an applicant from performing a significant paid job-i.e., “substantial gainful activity, ” in Social Security lexicon. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see Bowen, 476 U.S. at 469-70.

         Judicial review of an ALJ's non-disability decision proceeds along two lines: “whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence.” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009); see Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 745-46 (6th Cir. 2007). Review for substantial evidence is not driven by whether the Court agrees or disagrees with the ALJ's factual findings or by whether the administrative record contains evidence contrary to those factual findings. Gentry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 741 F.3d 708, 722 (6th Cir. 2014); Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). Instead, the ALJ's factual findings are upheld if the substantial-evidence standard is met-that is, “if a ‘reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Blakley, 581 F.3d at 407 (quoting Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004)). Substantial evidence consists of “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance ….” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); see Gentry, 741 F.3d at 722.

         The other line of judicial inquiry-reviewing the correctness of the ALJ's legal criteria-may result in reversal even when the record contains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's factual findings. Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009); see Bowen, 478 F.3d at 746. “[E]ven if supported by substantial evidence, ‘a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial ...

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