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Ortiz v. Astrue

July 8, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Suzanne H. Segal United States Magistrate Judge



Tammy Ortiz ("Plaintiff") brings this action seeking to overturn the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (hereinafter the "Commissioner" or the "Agency") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. This matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Stipulation ("Jt. Stip.") filed on March 18, 2009. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on December 19, 2005. (Administrative Record ("AR") 73-77). Plaintiff listed November 1, 2005 as the onset date of her disability. (AR 73). The Commissioner denied benefits on May 11, 2006. (AR 42-46). Plaintiff submitted a request for reconsideration on June 16, 2006. (AR 49). On January 4, 2007, the Commissioner denied benefits on reconsideration. (AR 50-53). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on January 24, 2007. (AR 54).

On February 4, 2008, Plaintiff's hearing proceeded before ALJ Joseph Schloss. (AR 19-39). The ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on February 29, 2008. (AR 6-8). On March 11, 2008, Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review. (AR 68-72). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 2, 2008. (AR 2-4). On June 16, 2008, Plaintiff filed the instant complaint.


A. Generally

Plaintiff was born on August 3, 1968. (AR 73). Plaintiff attended school through the tenth grade, but did not receive a GED. (AR 29). Plaintiff's past occupations included work as a filling line worker, dog groomer, fast food worker and care provider. (AR 31-33). Plaintiff claims disability stemming from anxiety and panic attacks. (AR 84).

B. Relevant Medical History

1. Treating Physicians

Plaintiff's treating physician at the time of the hearing was Trevinder Ahluwahlia, M.D.*fn1 (AR 37). On January 9, 2007, Dr. Ahluwahlia observed that Plaintiff was alert and did not suffer from any hallucinations or delusions. (Id.). Dr. Ahluwahlia noted that Plaintiff had a history of noncompliance with prescribed medication. (AR 201). Dr. Ahluwahlia recorded that Plaintiff's sleep habits and appetite were "okay." (Id.). Dr. Ahluwahlia noted that Plaintiff had no record of hospitalizations. (AR 202).

Prior to Dr. Ahluwahlia, Plaintiff was seen repeatedly by the Formula Medical Group. (AR 139-147; 173-180; 188-193). On November 8, 2005, Plaintiff complained of suffering from anxiety attacks and stress. (AR 146). P.A.*fn2 Dan Lowery examined Plaintiff. (AR 147). P.A. Lowery noted that Plaintiff appeared alert and oriented and that her "language, behavior, affect, thought, concentration and judgment are normal." (AR 146). Plaintiff was prescribed Paxil. (AR 147). On August 18, 2006, P.A. Lowery examined Plaintiff after she complained of panic attacks. P.A. Lowery noted that Plaintiff had not contacted "behavior health," and assessed Plaintiff with a panic disorder and anxiety syndrome. (AR 175).

2. Consultative Physicians

The Department of Social Services ("DSS") conducted a psychiatric evaluation of Plaintiff on April 4, 2006. (AR 149-152). Plaintiff complained of panic attacks. (AR 149). Plaintiff asserted that she was fearful of leaving her home and suffered from paranoia and suffocating feelings when around people. (Id.).

The examining psychiatrist, John S. Woodward, M.D., noted that Plaintiff's facial expressions, verbalizations and postures suggested "moderated emotional tension and emotional overactivity." (AR 150). Dr. Woodward noted that Plaintiff showed no evidence of "any impatience, irritability or anger," but that she appeared slightly fearful. (Id.). Dr. Woodward found that Plaintiff's "prevailing ideation [did] not indicate significant abnormality in thought processes." (AR 151). Dr. Woodward also noted that Plaintiff did appear to have "significant schizoid sensitivity with some defensive social withdrawal and a faint paranoid trend probably contributing to her anxiety and panic attacks." (Id.). Dr. Woodward noted that Plaintiff "may not be making a maximal effort in responding to questions." (Id.).

Dr. Woodward found that Plaintiff had a borderline level of intellectual functioning. (Id.). Dr. Woodward found in regard to Plaintiff's adaptation to work and work-like situations that:

Impairments are slight to moderate for withstanding normal stresses and pressures in the workplace and for interacting with the public; slight for interacting with supervisors and co-workers, for maintaining concentration and attention for performing detailed, complex tasks and none for performing simple repetitive tasks. Incapacity is slight for working on a continuous basis without special supervision and slight to moderate for completing a normal workweek without interruption.

(AR 151).

As part of Plaintiff's disability determination, D.J. Williams, M.D., provided a psychiatric assessment of Plaintiff on April 26, 2006. (AR 153-166). Dr. Williams indicated that borderline intellectual functioning was alleged, but also observed that Plaintiff "[gave] less than adequate effort." (AR 157). Dr. Williams noted that Plaintiff's "calculations are near miss (as in intentional poor performance)," and that there was no evidence of a lowered IQ. (Id.). Dr. Williams found that Plaintiff's "sudden decline in functioning from [November 2005] to current makes credibility an issue." (AR 158).

Dr. Williams noted that Plaintiff had a history of methamphetamine abuse, but that Plaintiff claimed no current substance abuse. However, Dr. Williams stated that "paranoia and anxiety are standard accompanying [side effects] of meth abuse, and she is alleging them . . . credibility is reduced by status of [Plaintiff] in earlier assessment when she was not aware of being assessed psychiatrically." (AR 161). Dr. Williams found that plaintiff was mildly limited in her daily living activities, moderately limited in maintaining social functioning and moderately limited in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. (AR 163).

Dr. Williams completed a mental residual functional capacity ("MRFC") assessment on April 26, 2006. (AR 167-170). Dr. Williams found that Plaintiff was moderately limited in her ability to interact appropriately with the general public, the ability the complete a normal workday and workweek without interruption and the ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods. (AR 167-68).

H.M. Skopec, M.D., completed a case analysis of Plaintiff for the Disability Determination Service ("DDS") on January 3, 2007. (AR 181-82). Dr. Skopec noted that Plaintiff had not complained of a worsening of her condition, and that she was able to manage her house and children. (AR 181). Dr. Skopec noted that Plaintiff had "a severe difficulty and would be best suited in a non-public setting." (Id.).

3. Plaintiff's Testimony

Plaintiff testified that she suffered from depression and panic that interfered with her ability to perform simple tasks. (AR 20-21). Plaintiff stated that she became panicked whenever she was "stressed out." (AR 22). Plaintiff testified that she "forget[s] things all the time." (AR 23). Plaintiff testified that she drives her children to school and drives herself to the doctor. (AR 25-26). Plaintiff stated that she does her children's laundry and cooks for them. (AR 26). Plaintiff testified that she changes her sheets and cleans the bathrooms and floors with her husband. (AR 27).

4. Lay Witness Testimony

Tina Taylor, Plaintiff's sister-in-law, completed a function report regarding Plaintiff. (AR 105-112). Ms. Taylor stated that Plaintiff "worry's (sic) about everything . . . is scared to drive anywhere past like 5 miles . . . [and] is real ne[r]v[ou]s around other people." (AR 106). Ms. Taylor wrote that Plaintiff needed reminders about her medicine because she "forget[s] thing[s] quick[ly] and is scared to take medicine." (AR 107). Ms. Taylor stated that since the onset of the disability, Plaintiff is no longer able to shop and is constantly worried about money. (AR 109). Ms. Taylor noted that Plaintiff's impairments affect her memory, concentration and her ability to talk. (AR 110). Ms. Taylor further indicated that Plaintiff's impairments interfere with her ability to understand, follow instructions and complete tasks. (Id.). Ms. Taylor opined that Plaintiff can pay attention only for five minutes and noted that she requires explanation of every detail of an instruction. Ms Taylor summed up Plaintiff's condition as follows:

Before [Plaintiff] got her illness she would go shop[p]ing with me, she was a very happy person, since her illness she has fear's (sic) over everything. She stress's (sic) all the time, she ...

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