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Valencia Small v. Michael J. Astrue

February 9, 2011


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


(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 Plaintiff's mental impairment and limitations (JS at 6); and

2. Whether the ALJ properly found Plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs as required in competitive employment (JS at 25).

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.


Plaintiff asserts that she has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Puglisi. Relying upon functional assessments made by Dr. Puglisi at two different times in 2008 (AT 240-47, 281-86), she asserts that her impairments fulfill the requirements of Listing 12.03, parts A and B. For the reasons to be set forth, the Court agrees that the ALJ properly concluded that Plaintiff does not meet a Listing, nor is she disabled due to any mental impairment.

A. The ALJ's Decision.

Following a hearing which occurred on December 1, 2008 (AR 28-70), at which Plaintiff was represented by the same attorney who now represents her in this litigation, and at which testimony was taken both from Plaintiff and a Medical Expert ("ME"), the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR 10-23.) In that decision, the ALJ summarized the evidence concerning Plaintiff's mental impairment.

First, the ALJ noted that on May 18, 2007, at the request of the Department of Social Services, Plaintiff received a complete psychiatric evaluation ("CE") from Dr. Simonian. (AR 16-17, 208-12.) Dr. Simonian took a history from Plaintiff, who indicated that she has been hearing voices, for which she is on medication, for about four or five months. Plaintiff started seeing a psychiatrist three months ago, and is going to Augusta Hawkins Hospital where she is receiving medication for her psychiatric condition. (AR 16, 209.) Dr. Simonian performed a mental status examination (AR 210-11), which revealed no major disorder of speech; generally coherent thought processes; full range and appropriate affect; slightly guarded mood; no delusional thinking. (AR 210.) Dr. Simonian concluded, however, that Plaintiff was able to comprehend questions and respond to them appropriately, but at times "she was selectively not giving answers to questions." (Id.) Dr. Simonian felt that Plaintiff was "generally evasive to many questions that were asked." (AR 211.) In asking Plaintiff to perform arithmetic calculations, Dr. Simonian "strongly suspected that [Plaintiff] was not cooperating, and was producing facticious symptoms." (Id.) He diagnosed Plaintiff on Axis I with malingering. (Id.) He also diagnosed her with personality disorder, NOS, with antisocial personality features. (Id.)

The ALJ reviewed and summarized ongoing mental health treatment that Plaintiff had received from Morongo Basin. (AR 17.) He noted that Plaintiff had received various forms of treatment for her allegedly disabling symptoms, but that the treatment has been "generally successful in controlling those symptoms." (AR 17.) His review of records from Morongo Basin of January 11, 2008 indicated that Plaintiff had good compliance with medications and that they were working a little. (Id.) In March 2008, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff reported she was sleeping better although she still cried frequently and had a poor appetite. In May 2008, the ALJ noted that Morongo Basin reported that Plaintiff was feeling less paranoid and a little better, and that she had good compliance with medications. (Id.) In June 2008, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff continued to show improvement during the period of adjudication, that she maintained appropriate behavior and reported hearing no voices. She had good compliance with medications and was scheduled for follow-up. In August 2008, Morongo Basin reported that Plaintiff stated she had less anger and there was a decrease in hearing voices, with an increase in her appetite. In October 2008, Morongo Basin indicated that Plaintiff had been without medications for a few days and reported voices and irritability. The ALJ noted that "this suggests that the [Plaintiff's] medications are effective in controlling her auditory hallucinations and irritability." (Id.)

The ALJ extensively summarized the findings of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Puglisi, who had treated Plaintiff since 2007. (AR 19-020.) Dr. Puglisi assessed moderate limitations in activities of daily living, marked limitations in maintaining social functioning, and extreme difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. He found extreme episodes of deterioration or decompensation in work related or other situations. He found a marked limitation in her ability to remember locations and work-like procedures, to understand, remember and carry out detailed instructions, to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; to perform activities within a schedule; to maintain regular attendance; to work in coordination with or proximity to others without being distracted; to make simple work-related decisions; to complete a normal work day and work week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. Similar restrictions were found with regard to Plaintiff's ability to interact appropriately with the general public; to get along with co-workers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes; to maintain socially appropriate behavior and to adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness; to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting; and to tolerate stress in an ordinary work situation. Dr. Puglisi found Plaintiff to be moderately limited in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out short and simple instructions; to sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision; to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticisms from supervisors; to be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions; to travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation; and in her ability to set realistic goals or make plans independently of others. (AR 19, 240-47.)

The ALJ noted that Dr. Puglisi had found similar functional restrictions in a November 25, ...

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