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Scott v. Astrue

July 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joe Billy McDADE United States Senior District Judge


Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff appeals the decision of the Social Security Administration denying his claim for disability benefits. This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 10) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance (Doc. 12). Each party has responded in opposition to the other's Motion, and they are now fully briefed and ready for disposition. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance is granted.


To be entitled to disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove that he is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine if the claimant is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner of Social Security engages in a factual determination. See McNeil v. Califano, 614 F.2d 142, 145 (7th Cir. 1980). The factual determination is made by using a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Maggard v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 376, 378 (7th Cir. 1999).

In the first step, a threshold determination is made to determine whether the claimant is presently involved in a substantially gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not under such employment, the Commissioner of Social Security proceeds to the next step. At the second step, the Commissioner evaluates the severity and duration of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant has an impairment that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, the Commissioner will proceed to the next step. At the third step, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairments to a list of impairments considered severe enough to preclude any gainful work; and, if the elements on the list are met or equaled, he declares the claimant eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

If the claimant does not qualify under one of the listed impairments at Step Three, the Commissioner proceeds to the fourth and fifth steps. At the fourth step, the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") is evaluated to determine whether the claimant can pursue her past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f). If she cannot, then, at Step Five, the Commissioner evaluates the claimant's ability to perform other work available in the economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The claimant has the burden to prove disability through Step Four of the analysis, i.e., he must demonstrate an impairment that is of sufficient severity to preclude him from pursuing his past work. McNeil, 614 F.2d at 145. However, once the claimant shows an inability to perform his past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, at Step Five, to show the claimant is able to engage in some other type of substantial gainful employment. Id.

Once a case reaches a federal district court, the court's review is governed by 42 U.S.C. 405(g), which provides, in relevant part, "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Maggard, 167 F.3d at 379 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

A court's function on review is not to try the case de novo or to supplant the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") with the Court's own assessment of the evidence. See Pugh v. Bowen, 870 F.2d 1271, 1274 (7th Cir. 1989). A court must only determine whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] own judgment" for that of the ALJ. See Delgado v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 79, 82 (7th Cir. 1986). Furthermore, in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, credibility determinations made by the ALJ will not be disturbed "so long as they find some support in the record and are not patently wrong." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 335 (7th Cir. 1994).

However, the ALJ must articulate reasons for rejecting or accepting entire lines of evidence. Godbey v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 803, 807-08 (7th Cir. 2000). The ALJ is required to "sufficiently articulate [her] assessment of the evidence to 'assure us that [she] considered the important evidence... and to enable us to trace the path of [her] reasoning.'" Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993) (quoting Stephens v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 284, 287 (7th Cir. 1985)).


I. Procedural History

Plaintiff, David L. Scott, was born December 21, 1979. (Tr. 337). Plaintiff worked for Modern Machine and Manufacturing from 2001 to 2003, primarily working on a machine that cuts tractor parts. (Tr. 391). As a machine operator, he was required to walk, stand, stoop, and handle or grab objects frequently and to sit and climb occasionally. (Tr. 94). Most of the time, his job duties required him to lift 10 lbs, but sometimes he lifted up to 50 lbs. (Tr. 94). Before this employment, he worked as a kiln placer, stocker, janitor, and washer from 1995 to 2000. (Tr. 94, 392, 1135). His job duties for these previous positions included pushing cards into a kiln and stocking items in shelves. (Tr. 392). Plaintiff last worked at Modern Machine and Manufacturing on June 30, 2003 (Tr. 94, 1117), which he initially reported as his disability onset date (Tr. 93).

Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income benefits on August 18, 2003 and an application for disability insurance benefits on September 10, 2003, based upon his alleged disabling conditions of costochondritis and a social anxiety disorder, alleging a disability onset date of June 30, 2003 (Tr. 92-102, 81-83). At that time, he had been living with his girlfriend and her daughter for more than eight years. (Tr. 389, 412). Plaintiff alleged in his initial Disability Report that he quit working at Modern Machine and Manufacturing because he could not "handle the pain" resulting from his costochrondritis condition which was exacerbated by the physical demands of his job. (Tr. 93). He also indicated he had been diagnosed as suffering from a social anxiety disorder. (Tr. 93).

The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and proceeded to a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Barbara Welsch that resulted in a denial decision by the ALJ on November 22, 2006. (Tr. 307-313). Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council on January 3, 2007. (Tr. 23). The Appeals Council denied the request for review on February 16, 2007, making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 23).

Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). On September 28, 2007, the parties stipulated to a voluntary remand for consideration of evidence that Plaintiff had submitted to the Appeals Council that was not included in the record until after the ALJ issued her denial decision. (Tr. 23, 351-55). The ALJ convened another hearing on July 22, 2008, to consider the expanded record. (Tr. 1114-40). At the hearing, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel, Plaintiff testified and amended his disability onset date to June 1, 2006. (Tr. 1139). A vocational expert, Dr. James Lanaier, also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 1134-39). On September 10, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 23-33), and the Appeals Council subsequently declined his request for review (Tr. 8-10), making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed the instant appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) on December 2, 2009.

II. Relevant Medical History

On July 23, 2003, Plaintiff voluntarily went to Bridgeway Mental Health for a Comprehensive Mental Health Assessment. (Tr. 179-185). The primary diagnostic impairment was generalized anxiety and it was noted that he had been using marijuana every day for eight years as a way of coping. (Tr. 181). Plaintiff was also seen by Dr. Sudesh Sachdeva for a psychiatric assessment on August 4, 2003 at Bridgeway. (Tr. 175-177). The doctor noted Plaintiff's anxious mood and diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder with depressive symptoms, possible substance abuse, and obsessive compulsive personality traits. (Tr. 176). Plaintiff was prescribed Prozac and scheduled for further therapy sessions. (Tr. 177). He was subsequently seen on August 11, 2003 (Tr. 174), August 26, 2003 (Tr. 173), and September 16, 2003 (Tr. 172), at which time Plaintiff reported that he was dealing with the various stresses in his life with the help of his medication and positive thinking.

On November 6, 2003, Patricia A Beers, Ph.D., a state agency physician prepared a mental RFC assessment of Plaintiff (Tr. 186-189). The result of this assessment showed that Plaintiff's mental impairments were in the range of "not significantly limited" to "moderately limited." (Tr. 186-187).*fn1 In connection with his diagnosis of "generalized anxiety," Dr. Beers found that Plaintiff experienced social anxiety and avoidance but was still able to understand, recall, and execute most instructions although he would be more successful in a socially restricted setting. (Tr. 188).

On September 29, 2005, Plaintiff was admitted to Great River Medical Center with suicidal ideations. (Tr. 577-578). During his hospitalization, Plaintiff complained to his treating physician, Dr. Frank Jones, M.D., that the medical staff tends to make him mad and expressed his desire to stab people with a screwdriver when they treat him that way. (Tr. 581-583). Plaintiff was diagnosed with depressive and anxiety disorder. (Tr. 583). When Plaintiff was hospitalized again at Great River Medical Center with nausea and vomiting from October 6, 2005 to October 11, 2005, his treating gastroenterologist, Michael J. Niehaus, M.D., suspected that Plaintiff might have a psychosomatic component to his impairment. (Tr. 479-480).

On March 9, 2006, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Martin Ruzek at Community Health Centers of Southeastern Iowa, who diagnosed Plaintiff's symptom as "[i]ntractable chest pain" with psychosomatic disorder. (Tr. 215). Dr. Ruzek referred Plaintiff to a psychiatrist for a second opinion and prescribed Lexapro; however, Plaintiff refused to take any antidepressants. (Tr. 215). On April 10, 2006 and May 8, 2006, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Jonathan C. Lindo at The Lindo Clinic. Dr. Lindo diagnosed Plaintiff with depression and irritable bowel syndrome (or chronic abdominal pain). (Tr. 290, 293).

On June 16, 2006, Plaintiff saw Dr. Scott Wright at Bridgeway. (Tr. 271-73). Plaintiff complained of anxious and irritable moods as well as social phobia. (Tr. 271). He also stated that he obsesses over washing his hands. (Tr. 271). Dr. Wright noting that Plaintiff's speech was somewhat rambling and nervous but not pressured, made an Axis I diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder with social phobic and paranoid features; Schizoaffective Disorder with anxious features and Bipolar type 2 were ruled out (Tr. 273). Dr. Wright assigned Plaintiff a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score "greater than 50" and prescribed medication. (Tr. 273, 1094).

On July 17, 2006, Plaintiff sought medical treatment for his left hand after he punched a wall. (Tr. 275-277). A few days later, Plaintiff told Dr. Wright that he had become more irritable since his previous visit and prone to angry outbursts, and that he once punched a wall when he became angry upon hearing off-color remarks made by his girlfriend's relatives. (Tr. 301). Dr. Wright found Plaintiff's thought processes to be intact and that he had an euthymic affect.*fn2 (Tr. 301). Dr. Wright reaffirmed his diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder with social phobic and paranoid features and added bipolar affective disorder. (Tr. 301). Although Plaintiff attributed his change to his medications, it was noted that Plaintiff had these types of symptoms long before he was on medication. (Tr. 301).

In August 2006, Plaintiff stated that he was doing better and was less angry during a return appointment with Dr. Wright. (Tr. 1076). Dr. Wright noted that there were no side effects from the medication, and that Plaintiff had non-pressured speech, a better mood, an euthymic affect, normal thought processes, and no suicidal or homicidal thoughts. (Tr. 1076). Dr. Wright also noted, on October 13, 2006, that Plaintiff's obsessive-compulsive symptoms were "about 30 percent better." (Tr. 1075). Dr. Wright noted in December 2006 that Plaintiff continued to have episodic spells of stress and feeling of hatefulness toward others. (Tr. 1074). Plaintiff had rambling speech and irritable mood, but had an euthymic affect with no side effects from the medication. (Tr. 1074).

On January 12, 2007, Dr. Wright prepared a Medical Source Statement regarding the nature and severity of Plaintiff's mental impairment, which indicated his opinion that Plaintiff had moderate to marked impairments in the areas of understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence, social interaction, and adaptation. (Tr. 1038-1040). Dr. Wright assessed Plaintiff's functioning as "moderately" or "markedly" limited in almost every functional area for the past twelve months. (Tr. 1039-40). Based on his assessment, Plaintiff had "moderately" limited abilities to understand, remember, and carry out simple and detailed instructions (Tr. 1039), and had a "markedly limited" ability to travel in unfamiliar places. (Tr. 1040). Contradictory assessments were made of Plaintiff's social skills: Plaintiff had a "markedly limited" ability to get along with co-workers or peers without unduly distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, which was inconsistent with the finding that he was "not significantly limited" in his ability to maintain socially appropriate behavior and only "moderately limited" in his ability to interact appropriately with the general public. (Tr. 1039-40). Dr. Wright suspected that the limitations found were present for at least a year before he first examined Plaintiff in June 2006. (Tr. 1040).

In March 2007, Dr. Wright noted that Plaintiff was "not being physically aggressive to anyone or breaking things" and that he had an euthymic affect (Tr. 1072). Although Plaintiff had racing thoughts, his temper appeared to be improved with more control. (Tr. 1072). But in April, Plaintiff was again depressed and anxious because his girlfriend's brain image showed a spot in her brain. (Tr. 1070). Plaintiff had a logical thought process and an euthymic affect with no side effects from his medication. (Tr. 1070). In June 2007, Dr. Wright noted that Plaintiff was still irritable about nearly everything on a daily basis. (Tr. 1068). Plaintiff was restless and slept poorly, but again had a logical thought process and an euthymic affect with no side effects from his medication. (Tr. 1068). In September 2007, Plaintiff still had no side effects from his medication and an exam revealed that Plaintiff had some paranoia, rambling speech, irritable mood, full affect, intact thought processes, and psychomotor restlessness. (Tr. 1065).

On November 16, 2007, Plaintiff had a visit with Dr. Wright at which he reported that he threw a plastic table and it bounced off of his girlfriend. (Tr. 1086). It was noted that Plaintiff had an explosive temper even though he worked hard to control his temper. (Tr. 1086). Plaintiff's thought processes and thought content were intact and his concentration was fine. (Tr. 1086). He had an euthymic affect with no side effects from the medication other than some sedation. (Tr. 1086). On that same day, Dr. Wright filled out a Mental Impairment Questionnaire, on which he opined, again in seeming contradiction to his treatment notes, that Plaintiff had "no useful ability to" understand and remember detailed instructions, but had a "limited but satisfactory" ability to carry out detailed instructions. (Tr. 1045). He added that Plaintiff had "none or mild" restrictions of daily activities, "extreme" difficulties of social functioning, and "four or more" episodes of decompensation*fn3 with extended duration. (Tr. 1046). Plaintiff had a "limited but satisfactory" ability to travel in unfamiliar place. (Tr. 1046). He opined that Plaintiff had "no useful" abilities to get along with co-workers or peers, to interact appropriately with the general public, or to maintain socially appropriate behavior. (Tr. 1046). Based on his assessment, Plaintiff would miss more than four days of work each month due to his impairments. (Tr. 1047). Dr. Wright also stated that Plaintiff's concentration was limited by his racing thoughts and distractibility and that his affect was unstable. (Tr. 1042). Lastly, Dr. Wright mentioned that drowsiness, fatigue, dizziness, decreased stamina, and slowed cognition were side effects from Plaintiff's medication. (Tr. 1042).

In February 2008, Dr. Wright stated that Plaintiff still had an explosive temper and irritability. He also noted that Plaintiff had an euthymic affect with no side effects from his medication. (Tr. 1081). In May 2008, Plaintiff showed great depression due to the death of his dog and a threat from his girlfriend that she intended to break up with him. (Tr. 1078). Plaintiff continued to complain about the denial of SSI and people being rude to him, but he denied planning to hurt anyone. (Tr. 1078). Dr. Wright noted that Plaintiff had increased anxiety but no side effects from his medication. (Tr. 1078).

In June 2008, Dr. Wright wrote a letter for Plaintiff stating that Plaintiff is not capable of pursuing full-time employment, followed by an explanation that Plaintiff's mental impairments are too severe for him to work full-time. (Tr. 1096). Dr. Wright further stated that he "whole-heartedly" supported Plaintiff in obtaining a medical card and disability benefits because Plaintiff needs financial support in order to afford the medications that decrease his psychiatric symptoms. (Tr. 1096).

On August 8, 2008, Plaintiff was convicted of battery for striking a person in the head ...

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