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Seals v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 30, 2019



          James R. Knepp II, United States Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff Ruthie Faye Seals (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). The district court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c) and 405(g). The parties consented to the undersigned's exercise of jurisdiction in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Civil Rule 73. (Doc. 10). For the reasons stated below, the undersigned affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed for DIB in August 2015, alleging a disability onset date of February 23, 2015. (Tr. 137-38). She later amended her alleged onset date to August 8, 2016. (Tr. 153). Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 83-94). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 95-96). Plaintiff (represented by counsel), and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at a hearing before the ALJ on September 13, 2017. (Tr. 26-54). On September 18, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff disabled in a written decision. (Tr. 13-24). On November 9, 2017, the Appeals Counsel sent Plaintiff notice of its review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 130-35). In response, Plaintiff submitted additional evidence. See Tr. 535-81. On April 19, 2018, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and issued a new decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 1-10). The Appeals Council's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.979, 404.981. Plaintiff timely filed the instant action on June 13, 2018. (Doc. 1).

         Factual Background

         Personal Background and Testimony

         At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff lived alone. (Tr. 33). She had a driver's license and drove to the grocery store and church. (Tr. 34). She had a Master's degree in psychology, and past work as a therapist. (Tr. 35-36).

         Plaintiff testified that because of her depression, she had low energy and no appetite. (Tr. 40). She testified she stopped taking medication for her depression “[b]ecause it wasn't helping”. (Tr. 43). She also noted that it made her drowsy so she would just take it “once or twice a week” and “felt if [she] ate proper food and took over-the-counter medication[, ] [she] would probably do better.” Id.; see also Tr. 44 (noting she stopped medication because made her drowsy and low-energy). She believed her diabetes caused the depression. (Tr. 44).

         Relevant Medical Evidence

         In December 2015 - prior to her alleged onset date - Plaintiff underwent a consultative psychiatric examination with Natalie Whitlow, Ph.D. (Tr. 326-33).[1] Dr. Whitlow concluded that she could not “gather sufficient information to determine an accurate and reliable DSM-5 diagnosis for the constellation of symptoms that the claimant described” and therefore she was “unable to determine if the claimant experiences any mental health symptoms that impair her ability to effectively engage in the work world.” (Tr. 332).

         In January and March 2016, State agency physicians Leslie Rudy, Ph.D., and Todd Finnerty, Psy.D., respectively, reviewed Plaintiff's records and determined the evidence did not establish a medically determinable mental impairment. (Tr. 62, 73).

         In August 2016, Plaintiff saw Brian Nwaozuzu, C.N.P. (Tr. 397-403). Plaintiff reported a history of depression, and that she felt “severely depressed” and wanted help. (Tr. 397). Plaintiff reported symptoms of insomnia, loss of interest in activities, and not wanting to stay in bed. Id. On examination, Plaintiff had a depressed mood, lethargic behavior, poor eye contact, and tense posture. (Tr. 398). She had a labile mood, fluent and coherent speech, and was cooperative and pleasant. Id. Mr. Nwaozuzu diagnosed recurrent major depression, prescribed mirtazapine, encouraged Plaintiff to see a social worker, and ordered a psychiatry consultation. (Tr. 399). That same day, Plaintiff completed a psychiatry intake by phone with Lisa Johnson, L.S.W. (Tr. 531).

         In October 2016, Plaintiff reported she thought she was able to sleep better since starting the mirtazapine. (Tr. 388). At that same visit, Plaintiff scored a zero on the “PHQ-9”[2], answering “not at all” to questions about whether, e.g., she felt depressed, had trouble sleeping, or had little interest or pleasure in doing things. (Tr. 395-96).

         At a December 2016 visit for diabetes and hypertension monitoring, Plaintiff reported a history of depression. (Tr. 380). On examination, the provider noted she was positive for depression, and negative for sleep disturbance. (Tr. 382). The provider continued Plaintiff's major depressive disorder diagnosis, but noted she “report[ed] subjective improvement in mood.” Id.

         In January 2017, Plaintiff reported active involvement with Bible study at church, and that she “ha[d] a lot more social stimuli.” (Tr. 372). A review of systems was negative for sleep disturbance. (Tr. 373). The ...

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