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Price v. Astrue

August 14, 2009

MACK PRICE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Mack Price ("Plaintiff") brings this action seeking to overturn the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (hereinafter the "Commissioner" or the "Agency") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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 July 27, 2009. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for SSI and DIB on July 24, 2006. (Administrative Record ("AR") 42). He claimed that his disability onset date was October 20, 2003. (AR 95). The Commissioner denied benefits on November 15, 2006. (AR 49). On December 11, 2006, Plaintiff filed a request for reconsideration. (AR 54). The Commissioner upheld the initial denial of benefits on April 12, 2007. (AR 57). On May 4, 2007, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 62).

On April 4, 2008, ALJ Lowell Fortune held a hearing to consider Plaintiff's claims. (AR 16). On April 25, 2008, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (See AR 42-48). Plaintiff requested a review of the hearing decision on May 15, 2008. (AR 5). The Appeals Council denied this request on October 2, 2008. (AR 1). Plaintiff filed the instant Complaint on December 5, 2008.

III. FACTUAL HISTORY

A. Generally

Plaintiff was born on November 9, 1970 and was 38 years old at the time of the hearing. (AR 17). He attended school through eleventh grade. (Id.). He claims that he is unable to write, and can only read "a little bit." (AR 20). Plaintiff can read "small children's books." (Id.). Until October 20, 2003, Plaintiff worked for Albertson's as a forklift driver. (AR 18-19). According to Plaintiff, he was fired from his job at Albertson's because of his schizophrenia. (AR 21).

Plaintiff claims that he has been unable to work since October 20, 2003 because of his paranoid schizophrenia and the side effects of the medication he takes to control it. (AR 23). Plaintiff is married, (AR 18), and has a child. (AR 30). He has a driver's license and drives to the grocery store and to his medical appointments. (Id.). Plaintiff does not think that he will ever be able to return to work. (AR 29). He does not want to go back to work. (Id.).

B. Relevant Medical History

1. Treating Physicians

Plaintiff sought treatment for his paranoid schizophrenia at Vista Community Counseling ("Vista"), beginning June 7, 2006. (AR 19, 247). Plaintiff complained of life-long depression, paranoia, delusions, and auditory hallucinations. (AR 247). He admitted to daily use of marijuana and "speed," starting at age fifteen and continuing to his mid-twenties. (Id.). However, Plaintiff claimed to have been drug free for more than ten years. (Id.). At the time of his initial contact with Vista, the therapist found that Plaintiff was oriented to person, place, time, and situation, his speech as within normal limits, and he displayed average intellectual functioning. (AR 250). Although the therapist reported that Plaintiff's thought processes appeared to be within normal limits, she reported that he had difficulty focusing, and his insight and judgment were "poor at times." (Id.).

Under the orders of Donna Barrozo, M.D., Plaintiff took Trazodone, Zoloft, and Geodon. (AR 243). Plaintiff reported that these drugs were working. (AR 233). With them, he had no auditory or visual hallucinations, no anxiety attacks, and they controlled his paranoia. (Id.). Plaintiff stated that he wanted to continue with the same medication. (Id.). As his treatment progressed in 2008, Plaintiff reported that his paranoia remained under control and that his activity increased. (AR 281). He regularly reported no side effects from the drugs. (See, e.g., AR 232-34, 279-87).

On December 8, 2006, Plaintiff visited Dr. Deborah Small, M.D.*fn1 to establish care with a primary care physician. (AR 264). Dr. Small reported that Plaintiff's schizophrenia was stable at the time, and that he had no specific complaints. (Id.). On September 5, 2007, Plaintiff returned to Dr. Small to request that she fill out paperwork to help him get disability payments for his schizophrenia. (AR 260-61). Dr. Small again reported that his schizophrenia was stable, but for the first time noted that "his medications [were] highly sedative." (AR 260). Dr. Small provided a "Medical Opinion Re: Ability to do Work-Related Activities" at the request of Plaintiff's counsel. (See AR 269-71). Dr. Small checked off boxes indicating that she found no limit to Plaintiff's ability to stand, walk, or sit during an eight hour day. (AR 269). She checked boxes indicating that Plaintiff could frequently climb stairs and that he had no restrictions from working around machinery. (AR 270-71). Nonetheless, she found that he would need to lie down at unpredictable intervals every day. (AR 270). Additionally, she concluded that "[Plaintiff's] medications for his schizophrenia make him so lethargic he is not safe." (Id.). Due to his medication, Dr. Sullivan found that Plaintiff "should not operate machinery [or] climb stairs." (AR 271).

2. Consultative Physicians

On October 10, 2006, Linda Smith, M.D., a board eligible psychiatrist, examined Plaintiff at the Commissioner's request. (AR 203-11). Dr. Smith ultimately concluded that Plaintiff's "psychiatric prognosis [was] fair." (AR 211). She found no impairments during Plaintiff's functional assessment. (Id.).

The main conclusion that Dr. Smith reached as a result of her examination of Plaintiff was that he was not credibly reporting his symptoms. Dr. Smith repeated this conclusion throughout her report:

that Plaintiff "was not credible as a historian," (AR 203), that "[t]here [was] no evidence of [his] claims," (id.), that "[he did not appear to be genuine and truthful," (AR 208), that "there was substantial evidence of exaggeration and manipulation throughout the interview," (id.), and that she "[did] not believe the claims that [Plaintiff was] making and [she did] not believe [Plaintiff] is impaired in his ability to work." (AR 211).

Plaintiff came to Dr. Smith's office with his wife, who filled out Plaintiff's questionnaire. (AR 203). Plaintiff's wife stated that she needed to attend the evaluation with Plaintiff because Plaintiff was unable to talk for himself. (AR 207-08). After Dr. Smith insisted on seeing Plaintiff alone, he agreed. (AR 208). Because Plaintiff "had no problem at all in the interview alone," Dr. Smith assumed that Plaintiff's wife's statements were "pre-rehearsed" so that she would have the opportunity to tell Dr. Smith about Plaintiff's impairments. (Id.).

Plaintiff repeatedly told Dr. Smith that he was paranoid. (See, e.g., AR 204, 205, 207). However, Dr. Smith saw no evidence of paranoia when he calmly waited in her office, during the interview, or when she observed Plaintiff walking calmly through the parking lot after the interview. (AR 207-08). During the interview Plaintiff "smiled and chuckled . . . appropriate to topic." (AR 209).

Dr. Smith did not believe Plaintiff's reports of his symptoms. His descriptions of them were vague, and she concluded that he was "trying to decide what the 'correct' answer should be and what he should say."

(AR 204). When Plaintiff did not know the "correct" answer he would not make a decision about his symptoms. (Id.). Plaintiff was vague about whether his auditory hallucinations sounded like they came from inside or outside of his head. (Id.). According to Dr. Smith, people who "actually do have auditory ...


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