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Tondochan Hatchett v. Michael J. Astrue

August 31, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason


Michael T. Mason, United States Magistrate Judge:

Plaintiff Tondochan L. Hatchett ("claimant" or "Hatchett") filed this action seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied claimant's request for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. We have jurisdiction to review this matter pursuant 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c).*fn1 For the reasons set forth below, Hatchett's motion for summary judgment [23] is granted in part and denied in part.


A. Procedural History

Claimant filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on April 18, 2006. (R. 181-86.) Hatchett's application was initially denied on August 29, 2006 and, following a timely request for reconsideration, again denied on January 19, 2007. (R. 102-07, 112, 113-118.) Hatchett requested a hearing, which Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Paul R. Armstrong held on March 11, 2009. (R. 33.) ALJ Armstrong denied Hatchett's request for benefits on April 16, 2009. (R. 11-24.) The Appeals Council subsequently denied Hatchett's request for review, leaving ALJ Armstrong's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-3); Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 637 (7th Cir. 1998). Hatchett subsequently filed this action in the District Court, and the parties consented to this Court's jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

B. Medical Evidence

Claimant was seen by Laura Steinberg, a psychiatrist at North East Ohio Health Services in Cleveland, Ohio between February 27 and September 27, 2006. (R. 636-666, 813-914.) At the initial counseling session, Dr. Steinberg noted that claimant was suffering from bipolar disorder without specifying the type. (R. 664.) On March 20, 2006, claimant reported that her prescribed lithium was making her feel "too low." (R. 656.) During an April 27, 2006 session, Dr. Steinberg noted that claimant had quit using marijuana, and that she was taking her lithium again after a period of noncompliance.

(R. 654.) On May 11, 2006, Dr. Steinberg noted claimant was not taking a prescribed sleep-aid because it made her feel sluggish and hungover. (R. 647.) During a May 17, 2006 exam, Dr. Steinberg noted that claimant reported suicidal thoughts, but no intent to act upon them because of her daughter. (R. 645.) On May 24, 2006, claimant reported that her thoughts were "running fast," and that at her prescribed medication times, she often created excuses or began other tasks and forgot to take it. (R. 639.) Additionally, she stated that while one medication put her "in a peaceful mood," it also made her feel overly sedated and she could not tolerate that. (Id.) On May 31, 2006, Dr. Steinberg noted claimant was confused by her medication dosage and taking less than the prescribed amount, but otherwise complying with her medication. (R. 636.)

Following a November 9, 2005 car accident, claimant saw psychiatrist Patricia Martin at her Cleveland Heights, Ohio office on April 4, 2006, at the request of claimant's insurance company. (R. 627.) Claimant reported symptoms of nervousness and jitteriness following the accident. (Id.) During this examination, claimant stated that the accident had been extremely distressing to her. (R. 628.) Claimant apparently also reported that, after about a month without the use of her car, claimant was discharged from her job due to "productivity and attendance" issues. (Id.) Claimant told Dr. Martin that her activities of daily living had deteriorated markedly since the accident and that she had little energy, an irritable attitude, and would often cry. (R. 631.) Following the examination, Dr. Martin received materials from Dr. Steinberg which, according to Dr. Martin, did not mention that claimant had attributed her emotional or psychological symptoms to the accident when she saw Dr. Steinberg in February 2006 for an upsurge of depression. (R. 627.) Dr. Martin's report to the insurance company concluded that the accident had an indirect impact on claimant, in that it caused her to lose a job that was important to her, which in turn Dr. Martin opined was the main cause of claimant becoming "nervous and jittery." (R. 633.) Dr. Martin diagnosed claimant with "Bipolar Disorder, current episode Depressed, moderately severe," and found her Global Assessment of Functioning Scale ("GAF") score was 50. (Id.)

At the recommendation of Dr. Steinberg and claimant's case manager, claimant checked into the University Hospitals of Cleveland on July 28, 2006. (R. 745.) She was examined by emergency room physician Cristinel Coconcea. (Id.) Claimant showed suicidal and homicidal ideation when she was admitted, although that thought content was apparently not present on her discharged three days later. (R. 746, 747.)

State examiner and psychologist Herschel Pickholtz examined claimant in Beachwood, Ohio on August 9, 2006. (R. 760.) Claimant reported that with her current medications, her depression had improved to some degree, but that she still had problems with mood swings. (R. 761.) Dr. Pickholtz' August 20, 2006 report indicates claimant stated her (unnamed) doctor told claimant she was having delusions and hallucinations and had a paranoid disorder with episodes of grandiosity. (Id.) Claimant also asserted that she was hearing voices that instructed her to kill her mother. (Id.) Dr. Pickholtz wrote claimant reported she had some periods where she felt homicidal and suicidal, but that she did not feel that way at the present time. (R. 764.) Dr. Pickholtz described claimant's overall levels of depression as moderate at that time and stated he observed no signs of mood swings or hyperactivity, but noted that she was slightly lethargic. (R. 762, 763.) He wrote that claimant's then-current levels of intellectual functioning were within the average to low average range. (R. 763.) Dr. Pickholtz diagnosed claimant with bipolar affective disorder, "mild to moderate, without any psychotic processing and no signs of any manic activity with her major problem related to her depression, which appeared to be mild to moderate." (R. 765.) He also found she had "mixed polysubstance dependency allegedly in remission as of recently" and a GAF of 60 to 65, and noted she was a victim of sexual molestation. (Id.)

On August 25, 2006, state medical consultant Leslie Rudy, Ph.D., completed a mental residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment and a "psychiatric review technique" form regarding claimant. (R. 768-71, 772-85.) Dr. Rudy diagnosed claimant with bipolar affective disorder and mixed polysubstance dependency in (reported) remission. (R. 775, 779.) Among other things, Dr. Rudy concluded that claimant was moderately limited in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions, and in her abilities to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. (R. 768, 769.) Dr. Rudy also opined that claimant was moderately limited in her abilities to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, to get along with co-workers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, and to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. (R. 769.) Dr. Rudy found claimant had a mild to moderate limitation with handling the stresses and pressures of work, and that she would be able to work in an environment where there was little production demand and little interaction with others. (R. 770.) Dr. Rudy also concluded that claimant had mild restrictions in activities of daily living and difficulties in maintaining social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence and pace, and one or two episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. (R. 782.)

On August 29, 2006, state medical consultant Gary Hinzman, M.D., completed a physical RFC assessment of claimant. (R. 786-93.) Among other things, he found that she had a decreased range of motion in her knees, shoulders, and hips bilaterally, a history of uncontrolled high blood pressure, and chest pain related to stress and anxiety.

(R. 787.) He concluded that she could occasionally lift or carry up to 20 pounds, could frequently lift or carry 10 pounds, and had various postural limitations. (R. 787, 788.)

Between October 2006 and February 2008, claimant regularly saw two psychiatrists, Khursheed Zia and Mercy Sabapathypillai, both of Bootheel Counseling Services in Sikeston, Missouri. (R. 916-928, 931-1003.) During that period, they prescribed claimant with Lithium, Eskalith, Klonopin, Trazadone, and Lamacitol. (R. 1003.) On March 9, 2007, Dr. Zia noted that, to the best of her knowledge, claimant had been compliant with her medications and appointments, and her current diagnoses were bipolar I disorder, depressed type with psychotic features, and marijuana and alcohol abuse, both in full sustained remission. (R. 955.) On August 31, 2007, Dr. Sabapathypillai wrote an open note stating claimant was unable to be gainfully employed for the next three months "[d]ue to her mental condition and medication adjustment." (R. 1002.) Claimant was discharged from Bootheel Counseling Services on February 20, 2008 as a result of her moving away from the area. (R. 931.) The discharge summary noted that she continued to report symptoms of mood swings, irritability, and depression that "appeared to improve with medications compliance," but that she also "reported periods of noncompliance throughout treatment." (R. 932.) She was advised to follow up with mental and other health care in her new location. (Id.)

Between October 2007 and February 2009, Marshall James, a primary care physician, and Nathaniel Isaac, Psy.D, both of the Family Christian Health Center in Harvey, Illinois, treated claimant. (R. 1022-1036, 1062-67, 1071-76.) During that period, they repeatedly noted that claimant had bipolar disorder and hypertension. (E.g., R. 1025, 1026, 1027, 1033.) On April 4, 2008, Dr. Isaac completed a "Mental Impairment Questionnaire." (R. 1038-41.) He diagnosed claimant with bipolar disorder and found a GAF of between 51 and 60. (R. 1038.) According to his report, claimant exhibited symptoms including mood disturbance, emotional lability, difficulty thinking or concentrating, suicidal ideation, social withdrawal, decreased energy, manic syndrome, hostility, and irritability. (Id.) Dr. Isaac noted that he expected claimant to be absent from work more than three times a month due to her impairment. (R. 1039.)

Dr. Isaac indicted that a chart entitled "Mental Abilities and Aptitude Needed to do Unskilled Work" was "not assessed." (R. 1040.) However, he did indicate the degree to which he found certain of claimant's functions limited as a result of her mental impairments. (R. 1041.) He assessed claimant as having marked restrictions in activities of daily living, marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning, frequent deficiencies of concentration, persistence, or pace, and repeated (3 or more) episodes of deterioration or decompensation in work, resulting in exacerbation of symptoms. (Id.)

On February 19, 2008, claimant was admitted to Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey, Illinois. (R. 1005.) The next day, attending physician Lester Hockenberry noted she had been suffering from hypomania, that her "tox is positive for marijuana," and that she "will have outpatient follow-up." (R. 1006.) Following hospitalization, claimant continued to see Dr. James, as noted above.

C. Claimant's Testimony

At the time of the March 11, 2009 hearing, the claimant was 35 years old. Claimant testified that she had moved to Illinois from Missouri because of relationship problems, stating that if she remained in Missouri any longer, "somebody was going to be dead." (R. 38.) She asserted that she needed a job to support her then 16-year-old daughter, but that she had to stop working because she "was just stressed out to the point where [she] couldn't take it," which resulted in eviction from the home where she had been living. (R. 38-39.) Claimant testified the situation resulted in a great deal of anger and at least one physical altercation with her daughter. (R. 39.) She also described some of the physical, sexual, and verbal abuse she had endured. (R. 39-42.) Claimant testified she joined the military "to escape all that," but was "chaptered out" after less than six weeks for an "inability to adapt," after a drill sergeant "stuck his hand down [her] pants and [she] just -- [she] flipped out." (R. 42.) She stated that her usual experience at past jobs would be exemplary performance for the first month or so, until "a switch turns" and she is overcome by concentration and attention problems. (Id.)

Claimant testified that the counselors she visits are "not going to cure [her]," and that she felt that her medication did more harm than good. (R. 42.) She stated that she relived "traumatic experiences" -- including daily images of past verbal, physical, and sexual abuse -- over and over in her head, and that she was suicidal. (R. 39, 41, 45, 47.) She testified that if not for her daughter, she "would have blown my head off by now." (R. 47.) Claimant explained that she had also ...

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