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Monte G. Atkinson v. Michael J. Astrue

September 12, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge


In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff Monte G. Atkinson (the "plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") that denied plaintiff's application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act").*fn1 (Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Motion"), Dkt. No. 12 at 1.)

Plaintiff raises several arguments within his motion. First, plaintiff argues that the ALJ conducted a legally flawed review of plaintiff's alleged mental impairments at step three of the requisite analysis. (Pl.'s Motion at 10-14.) As part of this argument, plaintiff claims that the ALJ did not adequately consider the "Paragraph B" and "Paragraph C" criteria of the mental disorders listings within the applicable regulations. (Id.)

Second, plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge (the "ALJ") discounted the medical opinion of plaintiff's treating physician without providing sufficient reasons, thereby rendering erroneous both the ALJ's determination of plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") and the step three analysis. (Pl.'s Motion at 14-19.) Plaintiff contends that the ALJ cursorily rejected the treating physician's opinion in favor of the opinion of a non-examining, state agency medical consultant. (Id. at 16-19.) As part of this argument, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to address a Social Security Agency "Case Analysis" that supported plaintiff's alleged inability to work in an environment with even minimal contact with supervisors, co-workers, or the public. (Id. at 15-16 (citing Administrative Record ("AR") at 221-23).)

Third, plaintiff contends that the ALJ made an unsupported adverse credibility determination regarding plaintiff's testimony about the severity of his symptoms, (id. at 19-21), and plaintiff also contends that the ALJ improperly discounted a Third Party Function Report completed by plaintiff's sister. (Id. at 21-22.) Plaintiff contends that these errors rendered the RFC determination and step three determination flawed and unsupported by substantial evidence. (Id. at 23.) Plaintiff also contends that these errors rendered the ALJ's step four and step five determinations erroneous, because the ALJ gave the vocational expert (the "VE") a baseless hypothetical based upon a flawed RFC determination. (Id. at 23.)

The Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment and opposition to plaintiff's motion. (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Motion"), Dkt. No. 14.) Plaintiff filed a reply ("Pl.'s Reply") in support of his motion. (Pl.'s Reply, Dkt. No. 15.)

For the reasons stated below, the court partially grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and remands this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


A. Procedural Background

Plaintiff applied for benefits on November 14, 2007. (AR 52, 56.) The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's applications both initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 10.)

On May 13, 2009, the ALJ conducted a hearing regarding plaintiff's claims. (AR 10-16.) Plaintiff initially alleged a disability onset date of November 10, 2007; subsequently, the ALJ granted plaintiff's request to amend the onset date to November 11, 2006. (AR 10.) Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, testified at the hearing. (AR 17-51.) A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. (Id.) During the hearing, plaintiff confirmed that his previous employment included work as a computer operator, "mud logger," and possibly work in a liquor store, although he could not specifically recall the timing of the liquor store work. (AR 19-27.)

In a decision dated September 28, 2009, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled.*fn3 (AR 10-16.) In reliance on the VE's testimony, the ALJ also found that plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a computer operator. (AR 15-16.) Additionally, and also in reliance on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform other work, such as light, unskilled work as a poultry dresser. (AR 15-16.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-4.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action.

B. Medical Evidence

Several medical opinions have been rendered regarding plaintiff's medical issues and functional limitations. Plaintiff does not dispute the ALJ's finding that plaintiff has no limitations on his ability to do work-related physical activities, and accordingly, the undersigned's analysis addresses plaintiff's alleged ability to do work-related mental activities.

Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Inmas Coquia, treated plaintiff on at least six occasions, with treatment notes evidencing each occasion. (AR 180-81, 182-83, 237-38, 287-89, 307-08, 325-28.) In her "Medical Assessment of Ability To Do Work Related Activities (Mental)," Dr. Coquia diagnosed plaintiff with anxiety disorder, major depression, personality disorder with schizoid traits, and social phobia. (AR 284-86.) Dr. Coquia also assessed plaintiff's mental ability to engage in work-related activities. (Id.) She opined that plaintiff had "marked" impairments in his ability to follow work rules, relate to co-workers, make simple work-related decisions independently, interact with supervisors, behave in an emotionally stable manner, sustain an ordinary work routine without special supervision, and demonstrate reliability. (Id.) She opined that plaintiff had "extreme" impairments in his ability to deal with stress and deal with the public. (Id.) She also opined that plaintiff had "moderate" impairments in his ability to maintain attention/concentration for at least two straight hours. (Id.) In the treatment notes arising from her six encounters with plaintiff, Dr. Coquia assessed plaintiff as having a Global Assessment of Function ("GAF") score of 51-60 on five occasions (AR 180-81, 182-83, 237-38, 287-89, 307-08), and a GAF score of 61-70 on one occasion (AR 325-28).

Plaintiff also received mental health treatment from various mental health physicians affiliated with Kaiser, including Dr. Anina Schwartz (AR 167, 172), Dr. Aileen YapLacap (AR 181-87), Dr. Thomas Elmore (AR 178-79, 241-45, 300-02, 313-16, 319-20, 321-23, 330-32). Dr. Elmore, who treated plaintiff on multiple occasions, sometimes assessed plaintiff's GAF score as 51-60, and sometimes assessed it as 61-71. (AR 179, 242, 245, 302, 315.) While the record contains treatment notes from these physicians, the record does not contain the physicians' ultimate medical assessments of plaintiff's ability to do work-related mental activities.

A state agency non-examining medical consultant, psychologist Dr. P. Davis, completed a "Psychiatric Review Technique" form analyzing plaintiff's diagnoses, symptoms, and functional limitations arising from his mental health issues. (AR 203-16.) Dr. Davis opined that plaintiff could perform simple and repetitive tasks with little general public and co-worker contact, that he could adapt to a stable work setting, and should work independently. (AR 219.) Another agency non-examining medical consultant, psychiatrist Dr. K.J. Loomis, concurred with Dr. Davis' opinions in a Social Security Administration "Case Analysis." (AR 277.)

A separate Social Security Administration "Case Analysis," signed by a Dr. Thien P. Nguyen, contained the opinion*fn4 that plaintiff lacked the ability to sustain substantial gainful activity in an environment where he would have even minimal contact with supervisors, co-workers, or the public. (AR 221-23.)

C. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ conducted the required five-step evaluation and concluded that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (AR 16.) At step one, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 11, 2006, plaintiff's amended alleged date of onset. (AR 12.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments: "generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), unspecified; depression, major, recurrent, and a personality disorder, schizoid." (AR 12.)

At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any impairment or combination of impairments listed in the applicable regulations.*fn5 (AR 12.) In order to determine whether a claimant's mental condition meets a listed impairment, the ALJ must consider: (1) whether specified diagnostic criteria ("Paragraph A" criteria) are met; and (2) whether specified functional restrictions are present ("Paragraph B" criteria). Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a). If the claimant's mental impairment is severe, the ALJ must determine if it meets or is equivalent in severity to a listed mental disorder. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(d)(2). This determination is accomplished by comparing the medical findings pertaining to the claimant's impairment "and the rating of the degree of functional limitation to the criteria of the appropriate listed mental disorder." Id. The degree of functional limitation for the first three Paragraph B criteria is rated as none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(4). The final Paragraph B criteria is rated as none, one or two, three, four or more. Id.

Simply put, after the ALJ determines plaintiff's Paragraph A criteria, the ALJ reviews the medical findings and rates plaintiff's functional limitations to determine if they satisfy the Paragraph B criteria. A plaintiff who satisfies the Paragraph A criteria must be found disabled if his or her impairments result in two or more functional limitations found in Paragraph

B. Lester, 81 F.3d at 828-29. Alternatively, "[t]he required level of severity for these disorders is met when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements in C are satisfied." 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, ...

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