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Brown v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

March 23, 2018

DONALD RAY BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [1]Defendant.

          FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JOHN K. LARKINS III United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Donald Ray Brown seeks judicial review of the final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”), denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”).[2] Plaintiff raises one issue on appeal: whether the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding that Plaintiff's mental impairments of affective disorder and alcohol/substance abuse disorder were not severe impairments. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly relied on the opinions of reviewing state agency psychological consultants, James Piat, M.D., and David E. Massey, Ph.D., who opined that Plaintiff had no severe mental impairments, and discounted the opinion of his treating psychiatrist Dierdre Cosby, M.D. After careful consideration of the record and the briefs of the parties, it is RECOMMENDED that the Commissioner's decision be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 23, 2014, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2012. (Tr. 191-96.) The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 116-19, 123-26.) Plaintiff requested and was granted an administrative hearing before an ALJ (Tr. 40-82, 138-40), and on December 23, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 12-39.)

         Applying the sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, [3] the ALJ first found that there had been a continuous twelve-month period during which Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 22.) The ALJ next found at step two of the sequential analysis that Plaintiff had a single severe impairment of spinal disorder. (Id.) Pertinent to this appeal, in making his step two determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinably mental impairments of affective disorder and alcohol/substance abuse, considered singly and in combination, did not cause more than minimal limitation in his ability to perform basic mental work activities and were therefore non-severe. (Tr. 23-26.) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 27.)

         After identifying Plaintiff's impairment, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's RFC and found that he had the RFC to perform medium work as defined in the regulations, but could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; could only frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. (Tr. 27-32.) At step four of the sequential analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a kitchen helper, as such work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by his RFC. (Tr. 32-33.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 33.)

         Plaintiff requested a review of the hearing decision, but on March 2, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-7.) Plaintiff then filed the instant action seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits. [Doc. 1.]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court must review the Commissioner's decision to ensure that it is supported by substantial evidence and is based upon the proper legal standards. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Specifically, substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quotation omitted). The Court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner], ” even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. In contrast, however, the review of an ALJ's application of legal principles is plenary. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In his appeal to this Court, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff's mental impairments of affective disorder and alcohol/substance abuse disorder were not severe impairments. At step two of the sequential analysis the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a “severe impairment”-i.e., an impairment that significantly limits one's ability to perform “basic work activities” for at least 12 consecutive months. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.909; 416.920(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(c); 416.921; see also Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181 at *1. The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that such impairment significantly affects his ability to perform basic work activities. See McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1031 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The regulations in effect at the time of the ALJ's decision required that when a claimant is found to have a mental impairment, the ALJ must determine its severity by evaluating its effect on the following four broad functional areas: (1) activities of daily living; (2) social functioning; (3) concentration, persistence, and pace; and (4) episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(3); see also 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P. App. 1, § 12.00C. These four functional areas are commonly referred to as the “paragraph B criteria.” See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00C. Activities of daily living include cleaning, shopping, cooking, and caring appropriately for personal grooming and hygiene; social functioning refers to the capacity to interact effectively and on a sustained basis with others; concentration persistence, or pace refers to the ability to focus attention sufficiently long to allow for the completion of tasks commonly found in work settings; and episodes of decompensation are temporary exacerbations in symptoms accompanied by a loss of adaptive functioning, which makes it difficult to perform activities of daily living, maintain social relationships, and sustain concentration, persistence, or pace. Id. The ALJ must evaluate the first three functional areas on a five-degree scale: none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(4). The ALJ rates the fourth functional area on a four-point scale, ranging from “none” to “four or more episodes.” Id. If the first three functional areas are rated as “none” or “mild” and the fourth area is rated as “none, ” the impairment will generally be found not to be severe. Id. § 416.920a(d)(1). If, however, the mental impairment is severe but does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must conduct an RFC assessment. Id. § 416.920a(d)(3).

         Here, the ALJ discussed each of the “paragraph B” criteria, and found that Plaintiff had no more than mild limitation in any of the first three functional areas, and no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (Tr. 23-24.) The ALJ wrote as follows:

The first functional area is activities of daily living. In this area, the claimant has mild limitation. Specifically, on his Function Report, the claimant reported that he has only physical problems completing his personal care, does not need reminders for taking care of personal needs but needs reminders to take medications, prepares simple meals daily, cannot do household chores due to pain, uses public transportation and goes outside every day, and goes shopping in stores for food and household goods ([Tr. 1078-80]). Although the claimant indicated that he could not pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, or use a checkbook/money orders, he attributed such inabilities to not having money ([Tr. 1080-81]). At most, the above facts tend to show that the claimant has mild limitation in activities of daily living.
The next functional area is social functioning. In this area, the claimant has mild limitation. The claimant reported shopping in stores once per month, using public transportation or catching rides with friends to get around, spending time with others via Alcoholics Anonymous group meetings, having no problems getting along with family, friends, and neighbors, getting along “good” with authority figures, and having never been fired from a job due to difficulties getting along with others ([Tr. 1080-83]). These facts support finding no more than mild limitation in social functioning.
The third functional area is concentration, persistence, or pace. In this area, the claimant has mild limitation. As noted above, although the claimant indicated that he could not pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, or use a checkbook/money orders, he attributed such inabilities to not having money ([Tr. 1080-81). He also reported that he could handle changes in routine “fair”, could pay attention a “fair” amount of time, finishes what he starts, follows instructions “fair”, reads as much as twice per day, and uses public transportation to get around ([Tr. 1080-83]). Overall, these facts suggest that the claimant has only mild limitation in his ability to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace.
The fourth functional area is episodes of decompensation. In this area, the claimant has experienced no episodes of decompensation which have been of extended duration. Specifically, the claimant's psychiatric treatment has consisted of group therapy, individual therapy, and multiple initial ...

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