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Brandenburg v. Astrue

October 27, 2009

ROBIN L. BRANDENBURG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR B. Kenton United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER (Social Security Case)

This matter is before the Court for review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c), the parties have consented that the case may be handled by the Magistrate Judge. The action arises under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), which authorizes the Court to enter judgment upon the pleadings and transcript of the record before the Commissioner. The parties have filed the Joint Stipulation ("JS"), and the Commissioner has filed the certified Administrative Record ("AR").

Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. Whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly considered the opinion of the treating psychiatrist;

2. Whether the ALJ properly considered a mental impairment;

3. Whether the ALJ properly considered the lay evidence;

4. Whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's testimony.

This Memorandum Opinion will constitute the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. After reviewing the matter, the Court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.

I. THE ALJ PROPERLY EVALUATED THE OPINION OF PLAINTIFF'S TREATING PHYSICIAN, DR. NOYES

In Plaintiff's first issue, she contends the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of Dr. Noyes, her treating psychiatrist. (JS at 3, et seq.) Specifically, Plaintiff focuses upon an October 27, 2006 document ("Confidential Supplemental Psychiatric Evaluation") in which Dr. Noyes assesses that due to the "incapacitating nature" of her [mental] condition, Plaintiff should be deemed disabled and granted Social Security SSI benefits. (Id.)

A. The ALJ's Decision

The ALJ reviewed Dr. Noyes' opinion in conjunction with Plaintiff's treatment record, which documents excessive use of alcohol and street drugs, commencing in 2001. (AR 21-24.) She summarized Plaintiff's progress notes from 2001 through 2004, which indicate continued use and abuse of alcohol and drugs. (AR 22.) The ALJ noted that in April 2005, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital with disorganized behavior. The hospital Discharge Summary notes a "history of non-compliance with medications," and incorporates Plaintiff's admission that she consumes six beers daily, and uses numerous street drugs. (AR at 22, citing AR at 209-10.) Upon discharge, she was alert and oriented, cooperative with the interview, made good eye contact, had no evidence of psychomotor agitation, had speech within normal limits, and her cognition was grossly intact, with linear thought process. She denied having delusions, her mood was euthymic, her affect constricted, and her insight and judgment were fair. (AR 210.)

A month later, in May 2005, Plaintiff was again hospitalized because of her drug abuse. She was using a variety of narcotics (e.g., LSD, methamphetamines) in addition to alcohol, and was diagnosed with a substance-induced mood disorder. (AR 22, 204.)

On May 26, 2005, Plaintiff was hospitalized due to destabilization of her condition secondary to methamphetamine abuse. She claimed audio and visual hallucinations and paranoid delusions. She was stabilized and discharged with no restrictions, but told to avoid alcohol and drugs. (AR 22, 254.)

In June, 2005, Dr. Noyes noted that Plaintiff was "doing better on her medications[,] no anxiety depression has significantly decreased in the last month." (AR 279.) The ALJ noted Dr. Noyes' observations that Plaintiff had normal motor activity; only slightly distracted concentration; intact memory; appropriate affect; no hallucinations since her hospitalization the month before; that her ability to understand, remember and carry out complex instructions, perform activities within a schedule and maintain attendance, and respond appropriately to change in the work setting was good; her ability to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions was unlimited; her ability to maintain concentration, persistence and pace, and complete a normal work day and work week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms was fair. (AR 22, 279-281.

In July 2005, the State Agency psychiatrist, based upon his review of the record evidence, concluded that Plaintiff was moderately limited in her ability to understand, remember and carry detailed instructions, and interact appropriately with the general public, but could perform simple repetitive tasks in a non-public setting. (AR 22, 282-290.)

Dr. Noyes prepared a "Confidential Supplemental Psychiatric Evaluation" on October 27, 2006. (AR 332-333.) The document was summarized by the ALJ, who noted Dr. Noyes' statements that Plaintiff required in-patient and out-patient treatment; that she should be granted disability benefits due to the incapacitating nature of her medical condition. (AR 23.) In this letter, Dr. Noyes asserted the "cycling nature of her illness with psychosis," a characterization which has been reiterated by her counsel. (AR 332.) Dr. Noyes referred back to Plaintiff's May 2005 hospitalization, but failed to note her long history of substance abuse which precipitated that hospitalization. The ALJ further commented that Dr. Noyes failed to mention Plaintiff's long history of medication non-compliance, noting that she is currently compliant. The ALJ ...


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