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West v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 4, 2019


          District Judge Walter H. Rice



         I. Introduction

         The Social Security Administration provides Disability Insurance Benefits to individuals who are under a disability, among other eligibility requirements. A disability in this context refers to “any medically determinable physical or mental impairment” that precludes an applicant from engaging in “substantial gainful activity.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 469-70 (1986).

         Plaintiff Christopher West applied for Disability Insurance Benefits, asserting he was under a disability starting on February 23, 2012. His applications and evidence worked their way through preliminary denials leading up to review by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Elizabeth A. Motta. Finding Plaintiff not disabled, ALJ Motta denied his application for benefits. (Doc. #8, PageID #s 39-56).

         Plaintiff brings the present case contending (in part) that ALJ Motta incorrectly weighed medical evidence, including the opinions provided by his treating psychologist Paul Deardorff, Ph.D. Plaintiff seeks a remand of this case preferably for payment of benefits but alternatively for further proceedings. The Commissioner finds no error in the ALJ's decision and asks the Court to affirm rather than remand.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff was thirty years old on his asserted disability onset date. He has at least a high-school education. He worked in the past as a District Manager responsible for managing several dozen newspaper-delivery employees.

         Plaintiff testified before ALJ Motta that he injured his back while working in 2011. Despite several surgeries, he remains in low-back pain with leg numbness. His pain is sharp and goes from his lower back through his groin, legs, feet, and toes. Because of this, his upper back tightens, causing him additional pain. He explained to ALJ Motta that his back “went out” five times before he stopped working. “I could not even put clothes on…, ” he said, “or even take a shower or anything for at least a week or so after every time it went out.” (Doc. #8, PageID #67). To treat his pain, he takes Ibuprofen 800, Flexeril, and Omeprazole. The most he can comfortably lift and carry is ten pounds. Any more weight feels like it is crushing him. Id. at 77. He cannot walk without extreme back pain; he needs to alternate between sitting and standing constantly throughout the day. Id.

         Plaintiff has mental-health difficulties. Twice a month, he saw psychologist Dr. Deardorff for counseling. Each month, he also saw psychiatrist Ramakrishna Gollamudi, M.D., who prescribed Xanax, Zoloft, and Wellbutrin. Id. at 69. This medication took a “tiny bit of the edge off” Plaintiff's symptoms. Id. at 74. But his medication caused him to become drowsy, dizzy, tired, a little nauseated. Id. at 76.

         A few times a week, Plaintiff's psychiatric symptoms emerge in a singular way. He explained, “I get stuck in what I call loops where I will pace back and forth for half an hour to sometimes hours[, ] repeating the same sentence over and over again….” Id. He also has described his “blackouts” as “where I might get into the car a drive for 15 minutes and all of a sudden not know why I'm in the car or where I'm going. I forget things. I put things in the wrong places all the time.” Id.

         Plaintiff testified that he had “significantly worse” psychological problems at the time of the ALJ's hearing (in July 2014) than he'd had when he stopped working in 2012. Id. at 71. He told the ALJ, “I have depression, extreme anxiety to the point of where I regularly throw up and have non-stop diarrhea. I … will fall over. I've become very angry and violent.” Id. He had never been arrested, but he added, “I probably came close the other day when I almost took a machete into the DMV….” Id. at 72. He cannot leave his house “without … just constantly thinking about murdering people.” Id. He once attempted to commit suicide. Whether or not he sleeps well depends on his level of anger and anxiety. A couple times a month, he will not sleep for days. Other times he will sleep all day. Id. at 75.

         If Plaintiff is in a large group of people, he gets very anxious and very paranoid. He carries weapons wherever he goes. He added:

My car's literally full of weapons right now. I immediately start thinking about torturing, raping, and murdering people, and I can't not do that now. I have so many things going through my head that I can't focus, which will sometimes lead me to kind of start falling over…. [T]here's so much noise going on in my head that that drives the anger and then the pain, obviously, adds to that.

Id. at 78.

         During the day, Plaintiff cooks very basic stuff, not a full meal. He does the laundry if his wife carries it for him. He does very little yardwork. His wife mows the lawn a lot. Although he sometimes mows the lawn, he needs to use back braces and takes “a bunch of medication, Icy Hot, and stuff to get through it.” Id. at 72. He goes to the store with his wife but goes as early as possible to avoid people. Id. at 75. He tries “not to leave the house as much as possible.” Id. at 73. He does not have friends due to his psychological difficulties. He does not talk with his family and sees them once a year. As far as hobbies, he has a computer but only uses it to check the news. He does not have a social media account. He plays guitar, drums, base, and keyboard but can do so only for fifteen minutes because he has difficulty focusing. Id. at 75-76. He had not played in a band for seven or eight years. He reads but it is difficult for him to keep focused, so he flits from one thing to the next.

         Plaintiff's medical records reveal that in November 2013, psychologist Nicole Leisgang, Psy. D., examined him. She observed that he was cooperative. He was clean and neat in appearance. He appeared nervous by displaying noticeable facial fidgeting. He also fidgeted with his hands, avoided eye contact, and laughed nervously at times. Dr. Leisgang noticed that “[h]e also spoke in a somewhat monotone voice and was generally sullen…. He did not appear to exaggerate or minimize his difficulties. He was adequately motivated.” Id. at 402. Dr. Leisgang reported that Plaintiff “responded honestly and candidly on the first half of the MMPI-2 [Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory]….” Id. at 403. Despite this reference to the first half of the MMPI, Dr. Leisgang accepted the results of this personality test as “valid and suggestive of anxious and depressed mood.” Id. at 404; see 403 (“His responses were suggestive of anxious and depressed mood.”). Dr. Leisgang further wrote, “In order to assess his effort, the Rey-15 Item Memory test was administered. [He] reproduced 15 out of 15 items. His performance on this measure was not suggestive of an intentional attempt to exaggerate memory deficits.” Id. at 403.

         Dr. Leisgang diagnosed Plaintiff with generalized anxiety disorder and depressive disorder NOS and opined that these conditions stemmed from his workplace injury. Id. at 404-05. Dr. Leisgang recommended counseling and psychiatric consultation, with a goal of increasing his social participation. Id.

         Beginning in December 2013, Plaintiff began counseling with Rebecca Sammartino-Marple, MSW, LSW. Id. at 929. Ms. Sammartino-Marple diagnosed Plaintiff with depressive disorder NOS. She found that Plaintiff's “symptoms are current barriers to returning to work. He has verbalized distress regarding his poor sleep, anger, racing thoughts.” Id. Plaintiff's twice monthly counseling with Ms. Sammartino-Marple continued for nearly one year. At its conclusion in November 2014, she noted that Plaintiff confirmed his ongoing violent thoughts, nightmares, racing thoughts, social isolation, poor attention and concentration, and poor sleep. She noted that he was “not adequately responding to psychotherapy at this time.” Id. at 888.

         In November 2014, psychologist Paul Deardorff, Ph.D., evaluated Plaintiff upon referral from Ms. Sammartino-Marple. He was, at that time, receiving workers' compensation due to his depression. Id. at 135. Plaintiff told Dr. Deardorff, in part, “‘I pace around the house … I say the same thing over and over … I get stuck.'” Id. at 336. Plaintiff stated that he was easily angered and had violent, racist, and hateful thoughts. Id. at 335-36. He said, “basically I hate everyone ….” Id. at 336. Dr. Deardorff observed the following:

[Plaintiff] was a cooperative man with whom rapport was adequately established. He was clean and neat in appearance. His grooming and hygiene [were] good. He appeared to be anxious as he maintained minimal eye contact and displayed slight but noticeable facial flushing. He displayed no other autonomic or motoric indications of anxiety. His thought processes were clear and logical. His complaints of pain could be indicative of a somatic focus. His comments were suggestive of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors but he displayed no other abnormalities of mental ...

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