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Allen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

March 31, 2017

CAROL L. ALLEN, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is Carol L. Allen's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (“Motion”) (Doc. No. 12), filed with a Memorandum in Support (Doc. No. 13). Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) filed a Response in Opposition to the Motion. (Doc. No. 14.) On July 31, 2014, this case was referred to a Magistrate Judge. (Doc. No. 3.) The Court hereby withdraws that referral. In addition, upon consideration of the parties' filings and the transcript of the administrative record (Doc. No. 10), [2] and for the reasons stated herein, the Court will grant the Motion. (Doc. No. 12.) The Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.


         Allen filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act on December 10, 2010, alleging a disability onset of December 30, 2007, which was later amended to January 20, 2010. (Tr. 11.) Allen's claim was denied at the initial and reconsideration stages of state agency review. (Tr. 47-50, 61-63.) Allen subsequently requested de novo review of this case by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ heard the case on January 22, 2013, and Allen appeared with counsel. (Tr. 27-44.) Allen and an impartial vocational expert testified at the hearing. (Id.) At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ took the matter under advisement until March 5, 2013, when the ALJ issued a written decision finding Allen not disabled. (Tr. 11-22.) That decision contains the following enumerated findings:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2012.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of January 20, 2010 through her date last insured of December 31, 2012 (20 C.F.R. 404.1571 et seq.).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes mellitus, minimal degenerative joint disease of right shoulder, sacralization of the lumbar spine, arthritis of the knee, obesity, and psoriasis (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c)).
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) with the following additional limitations: may occasionally climb ramp or stairs, but must never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds; may occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; must avoid all exposure to extreme temperatures, vibrations, pulmonary irritants and hazardous [sic] such as dangerous machinery; and understand, remember and perform simple and detailed one to three steps tasks, able to maintain concentration for at least two hours, able to sustain an ordinary work routine around others and make acceptable simple and detailed work-related decisions, able to appropriately interact with the general public and supervisors, able to handle infrequent changes and travel, may have occasional disruptions from psychological symptoms, and able to maintain basic standards of neatness and cleanliness.
6. Through the date last insured, the claimant was capable of performing past relevant work as an optometry technician and customer clerk. This work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 C.F.R. 404.1565).
7. The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from January 20, 2010, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2012, the date last insured (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(f)).

         (Tr. 13, 15, 21.)

         On May 30, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Allen's request for review of the ALJ's decision, thereby rendering that decision the final decision of the SSA. (Tr. 1.) This civil action was thereafter timely filed, and the Court has jurisdiction. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I.Review of the Record[3]

         Allen has a long history of depression and anxiety due to physical and sexual abuse as a child. (Tr. 158-59, 174-77, 230-31.) In October 2010, she presented at Life Care Family Services suffering from depressed mood, crying spells, anhedonia, sleep disturbance, irritability, loss of motivation, fatigue, social isolation, difficulty concentrating, hopelessness, fear of dying, and panic attacks. (Tr. 230.) As a result, she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), with a global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) score of 45. (Tr. 231.) Allen continued to struggle with severe depression, inattentiveness, anxiety, and trouble sleeping. (Tr. 308, 331, 338-39, 341, 343.) Her doctor prescribed medication for her depression and anxiety. (See Tr. Ex. 1F.) She also participated in psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Daniel Wood from 2008 to 2012. (Tr. 244, 340, 516.)

         Dr. Michael Loftin performed a consultative psychological evaluation of Allen on April 8, 2011. (Tr. 242.) Dr. Loftin observed that Allen was oriented to person, place, and mostly to time, was alert, appeared at least mildly irritated, and her thought processes included seemingly clear and logical thinking. (Tr. 245.) Dr. Loftin noted that Allen was able to perform some tasks successfully, such as spelling her name backwards, recalling all three named items immediately after they were said to her, and correctly spelling “world.” (Id.) However, he also noted that she performed poorly in the Digit Span tasks, was unable to spell “world” backwards, and was only able to recall one of three previously named objects after a three-minute delay. (Id.) Allen reported to Dr. Loftin that she has constant problems with her short-term memory and concentration abilities. (Id.) Dr. Loftin found that she showed evidence of moderate impairment in her short-term memory, mild to moderate impairment in her ability to sustain concentration, mild to moderate impairment in her long-term and remote memory functioning, moderate impairment in her social relating, and moderate impairment in her ability to adapt to change. (Tr. 248-49.) He stated that Allen's mood at the time of the evaluation appeared depressed, anxious, and irritable, and her affect was mood congruent, sad, and irritated. (Tr. 245.) Dr. Loftin reported that he found no evidence of malingering throughout the interview, but noted that Allen was very forward in providing/volunteering information about her condition during pauses in questioning or before questioning about her symptoms began. (Id.) Dr. Loftin also noted that she did not seem to put forth full effort during the digit span test, but she seemed to put forth a reasonable effort in other parts of mental status screening and throughout the interview. (Id.) He ultimately diagnosed her with anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder and measured her GAF at 50 to 52. (Tr. 247.)

         Dr. Andrew Phay, a medical consultant, examined Allen's records on April 25, 2011. (Tr. 252-68.) He also diagnosed Allen with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. Dr. Phay ultimately opined that Allen appeared able to remember locations and work like procedures and understand and remember simple and detailed one to three step tasks; perform simple and detailed one to three step tasks; maintain concentration for at least two hours, perform routine daily activities and complete a normal work week with acceptable performance/productivity; sustain an ordinary work routine around others and make acceptable simple and detailed work-related decisions; appropriately interact with the general public, supervisors, and peers in the work place with occasional disruptions due to psychologically based symptoms; maintain basic standards of neatness and cleanliness; be aware of and appropriately respond to changes and hazards in the work place on an infrequent basis; travel to unfamiliar places; and set and pursue realistic work goals in the work setting. (Tr. 268)

         On October 25, 2012, Dr. Wood, Allen's treating psychotherapist, completed a psychological evaluation which he based on “nearly five years of observations, impressions, and appraisals of Ms. Allen's participation in diagnostic clinical interviews, participation in psychotherapy, mental status assessments and ongoing symptom evaluation.” (Tr. 517.) He diagnosed her with PTSD, major depressive disorder, and panic disorder with agoraphobia and stated that “current diagnoses and associated symptoms represent a significant source of distress and impairment in social and potential occupational functioning.” (Tr. 518-519.) He measured her GAF at 50. (Tr. 516.) He opined that she had major limitations in her ability to react appropriately to stressful situations, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and complete a normal work day and work week without interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. (Tr. 521.) Dr. Wood also opined that Allen had serious limitations in her ability to maintain her attention and concentration for extended periods of two-hour segments, and to get along with co-workers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. (Tr. 521.) He also stated the following:

Notable and affective symptom presentation includes commonly reported sadness, hopelessness, discouragement, “down in the dumps, tearfulness, fearfulness, and pessimism.” Behavioral expression of these affective symptoms is noteworthy since they directly degrade functional capacity by compromising motivation, judgment, and quality of life. Further, significant ...

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