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Watson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

March 23, 2018

JUSTIN A. WATSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          SUSAN K. LEE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Justin A. Watson (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying him disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Each party has moved for a judgment [Docs. 15 & 17] with supporting briefs [Docs. 16 & 18]. This matter is now ripe. For the reasons stated below, (1) Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [Doc. 15] will be DENIED; (2) the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 17] will be GRANTED; and the decision of the Commissioner will be AFFIRMED.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff filed his application for DIB on February 25, 2014, alleging disability beginning October 19, 2012 (Transcript [Doc. 10] (“Tr.”) 190).[1] Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration at the agency level. After a hearing and reviewing new evidence, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act (“SSA”) (Tr. 10-20). After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, Plaintiff timely filed the instant action.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Education and Employment Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1981 making him a “younger individual” on the alleged onset date when he was 31 (Tr. 85). Plaintiff has a high school education, is able to communicate in English, and has a past relevant work history that includes work as a billing clerk and retail sales clerk (Tr. 18-20, 99).

         B. Medical Records

         The record reflects Plaintiff suffers from, among other things, protracted constipation, chronic digestive problems, long-term respiratory illness, chronic pain and neuropathy. While only select portions of Plaintiff's medical records are specifically mentioned herein, all pertinent medical information has been considered.

         Both before and after the alleged onset date of October 19, 2012, Plaintiff received treatment at Behavioral Health Associates, where his main treating psychiatrist was Prameet Bhushan, M.D., (Tr. 1188-99, 1642-93). On July 11, 2012, Dr. Bhushan completed a medical source statement entitled “Medical Record Summation Inquiry” (Tr. 1764-67). In that statement, Dr. Bhushan concluded Plaintiff's condition was “very reactive to stress” and that he presented “poor” abilities in (defined as “usually precluded” from) social functioning, concentration, persistence, pace and adaptation (Tr. 1764-67). Dr. Bhushan further opined that Plaintiff demonstrated “poor” abilities for following work rules, dealing with the public/supervisors/co-workers, working at a consistent pace for acceptable periods, maintaining attention and understanding, remembering and implementing simple, detailed or complex instructions (Tr. 1765-66).

         Outpatient psychotherapy notes from 2014 reflect Plaintiff had diagnoses of bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, treated with psychotropic medications (Tr. 973-83). Sources treating various physical conditions occasionally commented on Plaintiff's mental health as well. For instance, on March 31, 2014, Plaintiff was seen by a pulmonary doctor who noted that Plaintiff's ADHD and bipolar disorder were “stable on treatment.” (Tr. 1728). Plaintiff also received treatment from Tennessee Valley Pain Management and during an examination on June 30, 2014, he reported no depression and was noted to have a normal gait (Tr. 959-60).

         On May 21, 2014, a non-examining, state agency psychological consultant, M. Candice Burger, Ph.D., found that Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace, and mild limitations in social functioning and activities of daily living (Tr. 93-94).

         Plaintiff was referred to Chattanooga Neurology and examined by Matthew Kodsi, M.D., on May 22, 2014, who found Plaintiff's memory was mildly impaired, but his attention and concentration were intact (Tr. 901-05). Dr. Kodsi opined Plaintiff had “mild cognitive impairment” (Tr. 904), and referred Plaintiff to a consulting neuropsychologist, Robert Catanese, Ph.D. (Tr. 1118).

         Concerning physical limitations, Larry McNeil, M.D., concluded Plaintiff could work at the light level on June 25, 2014 (Tr. 95).

         A July 31, 2014 examination report signed by Dr. Bhushan notes Plaintiff was oriented and focused with intact memory (Tr. 979-84).

         In August-September 2014, the Plaintiff underwent the consultative neuropsychological evaluation with Dr. Catanese (Tr. 1118-22). Dr. Catanese reported a diagnostic impression of dementia, mild to moderate severity, and bipolar disorder, by history (Tr. 1121). He opined that due to a combination of physical, emotional, and cognitive difficulties, Plaintiff would not be able to work an eight-hour workday or 40-hour week (Tr. 1121). More specifically, during testing Plaintiff exhibited moderate impairments in memory and severe impairments in concentration (Tr. 1116). Dr. Catanese concluded these tests results indicated a high-degree of cognitive impairment and inefficiency with observed deficits particularly in short-term memory, visual motor integration skills, higher level functioning skills and certain aspects of language skills (Tr. 1121). Dr. Catanese opined that Plaintiff's cognitive efficiency could improve if his chronic pain and abdominal issues resolved (Tr. 1121).

         On September 8, 2014, Brad Williams, M.D., another non-examining, state agency psychological consultant, agreed with the determination that Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace, but also found Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in social functioning (Tr. 115-16). Both consultants concluded Plaintiff should have only “casual encounters” with the public in the workplace and could adapt only to “gradual changes” in the workplace environment (Tr. 93, 113, 115, 120-21).

         Assessing physical limitations on September 8, 2014, Reeta Misra, M.D., concluded Plaintiff could perform work at the light exertional level, and that some of his symptoms were contradictory and not supported fully by the medical evidence of record (Tr. 117-19).

         At a February 5, 2015 examination with Dr. Bhushan, Plaintiff was evaluated as depressed, but found to have normal thoughts and associations, he had intact memory, he was oriented and able to focus, his judgment was good, and his affect was appropriate (Tr. 1196). Dr. Bhushan again examined Plaintiff on May 7, 2015, and noted that Plaintiff had appropriate affect, good judgment, good insight, and was oriented with focused concentration (Tr. 1649).

         Plaintiff was hospitalized between May 30 and June 3, 2015, for bipolar disorder with depression and psychosis (Tr. 1351). Records reflect he was seen in the Emergency room May 29 for suicidal ideation/stating he did not want to live while carrying a pair of scissors (Tr. 1667-68, 1724-25). After medications and therapy, Plaintiff stabilized and, at discharge, he had a brighter mood and affect, had clear thoughts, and denied self-harm ideas (Tr. 1351-52).

         On June 8, 2015, Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Bhushan post-hospitalization and Dr. Bhushan noted Plaintiff's mood was “starting to stabilize, ” and Plaintiff was noted to be euthymic, with appropriate affect, good judgment and insight, and was oriented and focused, with an intact memory (Tr. 1653-55). A July 7, 2015 note from a therapist at Behavioral Health notes Plaintiff stated he was depressed with suicidal ideations, had panic attacks, and “thoughts about ‘God taking him now'” (Tr. 1665, 1680).

         At his pain management appointment on July 20, 2015, Plaintiff reported improved pain with medications and rest, reported anxiety but no depression, and was observed to have normal gait and normal mood and affect (Tr. 1408-11).

         The Mayo Clinic evaluated Plaintiff's chronic pain syndrome and, in a report dated October 19, 2015, noted Plaintiff was in no acute distress but had deconditioning throughout strength testing of the bilateral upper and lower extremities (Tr. 1749). No. definitive cause for his pain was diagnosed, but he was reported to have chronic widespread pain and chronic use of opioids for pain (Tr. 1749). A pain rehabilitation program was recommended (Tr. 1749-50).

         C. Hearing Testimony

         At the video hearing, Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified (Tr. 28-58). The Court has carefully reviewed the transcript of the testimony.

         III. ELIGIBILITY AND THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         A. Eligibility

         “The Social Security Act defines a disability as the ‘inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.'” Schmiedebusch v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 536 F. App'x 637, 646 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)); see also Parks v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 413 F. App'x 856, 862 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant is disabled “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Parks, 413 F. App'x at 862 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) determines eligibility for disability benefits by following a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The five-step process provides:

1) If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled.
2) If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment-i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic ...

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