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Lawanda Tucker v. Michael J. Astrue

December 7, 2012

LAWANDA TUCKER,
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

Plaintiff brings this action seeking to overturn the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (hereinafter the "Commissioner" or the "Agency") denying her application for Disability Insurance benefits. Plaintiff lodged her complaint with this Court on February 24, 2012. On April 13, 2012, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Defendant filed its Answer on July 19, 2012. On August 20, 2012, Plaintiff filed a memorandum in support of her complaint ("Complaint Memo"). Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of its Answer on September 14, 2012. On October 1, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Reply. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

II.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On March 24, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") claiming that she could not work due to severe, disabling adjustment disorder with depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. (Administrative Record ("AR") 166-173). The claim was denied by the Agency on July 9, 2009 and again upon reconsideration on September 11, 2009. (AR 93-94). Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on December 15, 2010. (AR 71-92). Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified.

A vocational expert also testified. On February 24, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff benefits. (AR 27). Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision before the Appeals Council. (AR 14). On December 30, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6). Plaintiff filed the instant Complaint on February 24, 2012.

III.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on October 9, 1964 and was forty-six years old at the time of the hearing. (AR 174). She graduated from high school, has an AA degree in psychology, and has past work experience as a prison correctional officer and credit clerk. (AR 200, 373). Plaintiff asserts that she has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. (AR 167). Plaintiff's PTSD, depression, and anxiety began after she suffered a sexual assault in 1996. (AR 373). Based on a claim of depression, Plaintiff was approved for state disability retirement benefits on October 9, 1997 and elected to receive $1,546.18 in monthly benefits. (AR 135-37).

Plaintiff returned to work in 2002 and apparently maintained steady employment for five years, i.e., until 2007. (AR 154, 178). However, Plaintiff also received retirement benefits as late as February 1, 2009. (AR 145). Plaintiff ceased working on March 1, 2007, claiming that her disability prevented her from maintaining employment. (AR 167).

According to Plaintiff's medical records, she sought treatment primarily from Dr. Rosen. (AR 396-474). At various points between 2007 and the filing of Plaintiff's DIB claim, Dr. Rosen examined Plaintiff for conditions including shingles, possible infertility, chest pain, dyspnea, wheezing, headaches, dizziness, and problems balancing. (AR 452, 455, 461, 466-67). Dr. Rosen's reports indicate that Plaintiff's symptoms where not consistently present during that period. At times, Plaintiff exhibited symptoms of depression, anxiety, and high irritability. (AR 453, 456, 458). However, during other examinations, she exhibited neither depression nor anxiety. (AR 450). On July 27, 2009, at Plaintiff's request, Dr. Rosen reduced the dosage of Plaintiff's anxiety medication. (AR 332). Dr. Rosen noted that Plaintiff had "[n]o psychological symptoms" and "no emotional liability." (AR 447). Further, on November 23, 2009, Plaintiff discontinued the medication. (AR 445). There is no record of treatment with Dr. Rosen beyond this point.

Because Plaintiff was not receiving psychotherapy for her mental health complaints when she applied for DIB, the Agency referred her to Dr. Rajadhyasksha ("examining physician") for psychiatric evaluation. (AR 23). On June 23, 2009, Dr. Rajadhyasksha diagnosed Plaintiff with "PTSD, severe, (and) depressive disorder . . . ." (AR 373-75). Dr. Rajadhyasksha reported that Plaintiff has never been to a psychiatrist. (Id.). Dr. Rajadhyasksha also reported that Plaintiff presented as "alert, cooperative, oriented to person, place and time." (374). Further, Plaintiff "had spontaneous speech [that was] coherent and relevant" but also presented with a "[m]ood [that was] very depressed, anxious with tearful affect." (Id.). Dr. Rajadhyasksha noted that "[h]er concentration was adequate" and that she was able to "stay focused and was not easily distracted." (Id.). Plaintiff also denied "current active suicidal or homicidal ideations." (Id.). She appeared to be of "average" intelligence, evidenced "[good] general knowledge," and appeared to "keep up with current events in the United States." (Id.). She was also "able to do serial sevens and simple calculations with some difficulty." Her memory was "fair as tested by recall of 3 items after 5 minutes," "intact for remote events," and "fair for recent events." (Id.). Dr. Rajadhyasksha nevertheless concluded that, at the time of the June 23, 2009 examination, Plaintiff "will have difficulty getting along with her co-workers, dealing with supervisors and maintaining a schedule . . . ." (AR 375). However, on July 27, 2009, treating physician Dr. Rosen observed that Plaintiff showed no psychological symptoms, emotional liability, or sleep disturbances. Dr. Rosen also reported that Plaintiff's other conditions, including shingles, wheezing, nausea, osteoarthritis of the knee, and thoracic spine were "resolved." (AR 446-51).

Finally, Dr. Balson ("non-examining physician") prepared a case analysis on July 7, 2009. Dr. Balson concluded that Plaintiff's medical records show that she has "no problems with personal care," although she has "some difficulty sleeping" and "does not handle stress well." (AR 388). However, Dr. Balson also concluded that Plaintiff does not need reminders to take medication, completes household chores without encouragement, goes out alone, drives, and has good relations with family and friends. (AR 388). These findings are consistent with the third party function report completed by Plaintiff's husband. (AR 194-99). In that report, Plaintiff's husband added that she is able to pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, and use a checkbook. (AR 195).

IV.

THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL ...


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