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Strother v. Commissioner of Social Security

September 25, 2009

PATRICIA STROTHER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Craig M. Kellison United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, who is proceeding with retained counsel, brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to the written consent of all parties, this case is before the undersigned as the presiding judge for all purposes, including entry of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Pending before the court are plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 14) and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 15).

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for social security benefits on December 28, 2005.*fn1 In the application, plaintiff claims that disability began on January 1, 2002. In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff claims that disability is caused by a combination of psychotic disorder, schizophrenia, borderline intellectual functioning, mild psychosocial stressors, mood disorder, personality disorder, major depressive disorder, heart murmur, knee spasms, right knee osteoarthritis, and hypercholesterolemia. Plaintiff's claim was initially denied. Following denial of reconsideration, plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on June 4, 2007, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Sandra K. Rogers. In an October 26, 2007, decision, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled based on the following relevant findings:

1. Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: mood disorder and personality disorder;

2. Plaintiff's severe impairments do not meet or medically equal any impairment set forth in the Listing of Impairments;

3. Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: plaintiff is limited in her ability to respond appropriately to others and should have limited public contact; plaintiff has some limitation in her ability to maintain a schedule and attendance; and plaintiff has some limitation in her ability to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting;

4. Plaintiff maintains sufficient ability to behave appropriately in a vocational setting; and

5. Considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, residual functional capacity, and in light of testimony from a vocational expert, there are a significant number of jobs which exist in the national economy that plaintiff can perform.

After the Appeals Council declined review on February 5, 2008, this appeal followed.

II. SUMMARY OF THE EVIDENCE

The certified administrative record ("CAR") contains the following evidence, summarized chronologically below:*fn2

March 24, 2004 -- Plaintiff was interviewed at the Parole Outpatient Clinic while serving a period of parole following her release from state prison in May 2003. (CAR 110-12). The report of this interview reflects the following psychiatric history:

The parolee indicates that she first received mental health services, for depressive related symptoms, in 1998, while in Chowchilla State Prison. She states that she had been unable to eat and sleep properly during that time. She denies any past outpatient treatment while in the community, as well as any past psychiatric hospitalizations. She does, however, reveal one suicide attempt, which she says occurred in 2002, and that it involved her standing on railroad tracks waiting for a train. She denies any history of self-injurious behavior and states that she is not presently receiving any SSI for a mental/psychiatric disability. However, she does indicate that she did receive SSI benefits back in 1997, but her benefits were later discontinued because of her drug related offenses. She states that she is currently taking Lexapro and Seroquel. However, she does indicate that she has taken psychotropic medications in the past, but was unable to recall the names of those medications.

The report also reflects that plaintiff has a long history of drug use. Plaintiff began using marijuana at age 15 and, at age 29, began using cocaine which has been her drug of choice. While plaintiff reported that she had not used drugs since September 2001, much of that time has been spent in prison and is characterized in the report as "institutional remission." On mental status examination, the interviewer diagnosed mood disorder NOS, cocaine dependence, personality disorder NOS, and assigned a global assessment of functioning ("GAF") score of 55 on a 100-point scale.

February 17, 2006 -- Psychologist James Wakefield, Ph.D., performed a psychological evaluation for the Department of Social Services Disability and Adult Programs. (CAR 113-18). As to daily activities, plaintiff reported: "I do nothing. I sit on the couch counting my bunnies." She told the doctor she goes to church sometimes, but does not cook. She stated that she was afraid to go outside. Dr. Wakefield performed a variety of tests and concluded that plaintiff's verbal IQ was 70, her performance IQ was 69, and her full-scale IQ was 68. The doctor diagnosed undifferentiated schizophrenia and borderline intellectual functioning and assigned a GAF score of 55. Dr. Wakefield provided the following summary of his conclusions:

This 46-year-old female exhibits characteristics of a schizophrenic disorder. She appears to be experiencing both auditory and visual hallucinations as well as a severe sleep disorder. She is uncomfortable around people. She appears to have been befriended by a member of the church, but she generally has difficulty formulating social relationships. She is currently taking the prescribed medications Lexapro and Seroquel. Patricia appears to have borderline potential, but her current reasoning and problem-solving skills were appraised to fall within the mildly mentally retarded range. She was not able to maintain focus and concentration enough to complete the simple Part A of the Trail Making Test. Her performance on the Bender Visual-Motor Gestalt Test contained a significant number of emotional indicators. She will undoubtedly require ongoing intervention to address her impairments in emotional functioning. She is not capable of handling benefit payments in her own interests.

March 29, 2006 -- Agency examining doctor Philip Seu, M.D., performed a comprehensive internal medicine examination. (CAR 119-21). He noted that plaintiff has "potential workplace limitations due to the claimant's psychiatric disorder and fear of being around other people." It is noted, however, that Dr. Seu is not ...


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