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Farrell v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 7, 2020


          James L. Graham, Judge



         Plaintiff, Garry Farrell, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”). For the reasons set forth below, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court REVERSE the Commissioner's non-disability finding and REMAND this case to the Commissioner and Administrative Law Judge under Sentence Four of § 405(g).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB and SSI on June 4, 2015, alleging that he was disabled beginning April 14, 2014. (Doc. 9, Tr. 228-38). After his application was denied initially and on reconsideration, the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on March 22, 2018. (Tr. 31-61). On July 13, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. (Tr. 9-30). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6).

         Plaintiff filed the instant case seeking a review of the Appeals Council's decision on May 22, 2019 (Doc. 1), and the Commissioner filed the administrative record on August 19, 2019, (Doc. 9). This matter is now ripe for review. (See Docs. 10, 11, 12).

         In his decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security act through September 30, 2017, (Tr. 14), and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 14, 2014, the alleged onset date, (Tr. 15). He found that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the right ankle, status post-surgical repair of torn ligaments; obesity; anxiety disorder with panic attacks and agoraphobia; obsessive compulsive disorder (“OCD”); post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (Id.). The ALJ, however, found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (Tr. 18).

         As for Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ opined:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except: frequently climb ramps/stairs, balance, and stoop; occasionally climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds, crouch, crawl, and work around hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. Additionally, the claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks with no fast production pace. He can occasionally interact with others but not perform tandem tasks or be involved in teamwork positions, in conflict resolution, in persuading others, or in customer service positions. And there can be only occasional changes in the work setting.

(Tr. 19-20).

         A. Relevant Hearing Testimony

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he generally does not leave the house. (See, e.g., Tr. 43). He stated that his previous job ended because he was missing days and leaving work early with panic attacks. (Tr. 35). He also testified that he has not looked for work since moving to Ohio because of his anxiety. (Id.). Plaintiff testified that, on good days, his anxiety is a four or five; on most days, however, his anxiety is an eight or nine. (Tr. 40). He also testified that he has difficulty being in public places with noise and commotion and that he suffers from short attention. (Tr. 43).

         Also, at the hearing, Michael Lace, Psy.D., a medical expert, testified that Plaintiff suffers from panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Tr. 49). He testified that the mental status exams in the record “suggest a fairly high level of anxiety, constrictive affect, somewhat compromised at times.” (Tr. 50). He further stated that it is “difficult[] to lend a lot of credibility” to the reports of Plaintiff's therapists because they were not provided by an acceptable medical source. (Id.). He also testified that there “appear[s] to be some ongoing therapy” and “medication notes.” (Tr. 50-51). Additionally, he testified that, based on the record, no listings were met or equaled, explaining that the record supports “mild” limitations in Plaintiff's ability to understand and remember and “moderate” limitations regarding his ability to interact with others, and noting that “[t]here is evidence of fairly consistent anxiety, panic.” (Tr. 51). He also testified that Plaintiff would have “moderate” limitations in his ability to concentrate, persist, or maintain pace. (Id.). As for a residual functional capacity, Dr. Lace testified that, “[i]f the claimant were to work full-time, there would be some significant limitation[s].” (Tr. 52). Specifically, he testified that Plaintiff should “be limited to brief, superficial, and occasional contact with all groups, the general public, supervisors, as well as coworkers” and “to routine tasks, with few, if any changes in terms of venue” and “no fast-paced production or high quotas.” (Id.).

         B. Relevant Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff received counseling at Mind Springs Health Center in Grand Junction, Colorado, from December 8, 2014 through July 30, 2015. (Tr. 351-77). Mental status examinations revealed an anxious mood and racing thoughts but logical and goal-directed thought process with no signs or symptoms of a formal thought disorder and no suicidal ideation and normal speech, memory, and concentration. (See, e.g., Tr. 353, 358-59, 364-65, 372-73). Plaintiff was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. (Tr. 355). Treatment notes from January 2015 document Plaintiff's difficulty leaving home, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder. (Tr. 347). A January 2015 mental status exam revealed poor hygiene, friendly personality, psychomotor agitation, and anxious mood. (Tr. 364). In July 2015, Plaintiff stated that his anxiety had not improved in the last 6 months and rated his anxiety between a seven and nine throughout the day. (Tr. 352). He reported racing thoughts, anxiousness, shaking, heart pounding, panic at times, and fear of leaving the house. (Id.).

         In February 2016, Plaintiff reported panic attacks and worsening anxiety throughout the day. (Tr. 391). In April 2016, Plaintiff's primary care provider met with Plaintiff's therapist, who “d[id] not think [Plaintiff] can make progress on his anxiety as he is struggling too much.” (Tr. 385). His primary care provider told his therapist about his “impression” that Plaintiff “has become habituated to the Xanax and it has created additional pathology.” (Id.). In May 2016, Plaintiff reported tossing and turning and having nightmares but reported seeing a therapist weekly. (Tr. 383). In July 2016, Plaintiff expressed having “horrible” anxiety and that only Xanax provided relief. (Tr. 379). On exam, Plaintiff appeared agitated, anxious, and distracted, and was described as “[v]ery tense, agitated, anxious.” (Id.). In August 2016, Plaintiff described symptoms of agoraphobia and social anxiety. (Tr. 397). Mental status exam notes revealed benign findings other than mild avoidant eye contact, moderately rapid speech, moderately racing thought process, severely anxious mood, and severely restless behavior. (Tr. 400).

         A mental status exam performed by Ms. Baker revealed a well-groomed appearance, mildly avoidant eye contact, mildly mistrustful demeanor, severely anxious mood, and moderately constricted affect. (Tr. 488). Treatment notes throughout 2017 from psychiatric nurse practitioner Maryam Niazi show limited judgment and insight, racing thoughts, fidgety behavior, agitation, mistrust, and an unstable condition but no reports of delusions, self-abuse, aggression, or hallucinations. (See, e.g., Tr. 566, 568-70).

         On May 4, 2017, Plaintiff presented for a psychotherapy intake at Tru-Rob Counseling and Consulting. (Tr. 494). He appeared agitated with a constricted affect and anxious mood but had appropriate thought process and was oriented to person, place, and time. (Id.). His memory was intact, and he had good attention and concentration. (Id.). He had appropriate thought content with normal speech and unremarkable flow of ...

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