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Morales v. Astrue

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

August 23, 2013

ROBERT F. MORALES, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

FINDINGS OF FACT, CONCLUSIONS OF LAW AND RECOMMENDATION

JAMES D. MOYER, Magistrate Judge.

Robert Morales filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, who denied his application for supplemental security income benefits. Mr. Morales asserts that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred by failing to deem his post-traumatic stress disorder a severe impairment and by rejecting the opinion of his treating psychiatrist.

After reviewing the parties' fact and law summaries (docket nos. 10 and 11) and the administrative record (docket no. 8), the magistrate judge concludes that the ALJ's decision is generally supported by substantial evidence in the record, except his analysis of the degree to which Mr. Morales's ability to adapt to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

Mr. Morales filed an application for supplemental security income benefits in October 2009 and alleged that she became disabled as a result of an ankle injury and mental impairments.[1] The ALJ determined that Mr. Morales's ankle injury, bipolar disorder, and psychotic disorder are severe impairments, but concluded Mr. Morales is not disabled because he retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work with certain exertional and non-exertional restrictions.[2] Mr. Morales petitioned the Appeals Council, which upheld the decision of the ALJ.[3] Mr. Morales then timely appealed to this court.

On appeal, Mr. Morales does not challenge the ALJ's determinations with respect to his physical impairments. He limits his appeal to the ALJ's conclusions with respect to the effect of his mental impairments on his ability to work.[4] Mr. Morales generally asserts that the ALJ erred by failing to consider the entire record and improperly relied on only the evidence that supported his own analysis of Mr. Morales's condition. Specifically, Mr. Morales asserts that the ALJ erred by: (1) giving greater weight to the opinions of two record-reviewing consultants than the opinions of the examining consultants and (2) by improperly relying Mr. Morales's lack of treatment to support his conclusion that Mr. Morales's mental illness was not as severe as the consultative examiners suggested.[5]

B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

In reaching a determination regarding a claimant's disability, an ALJ is required to perform a five-step sequential evaluation process. If the ALJ is able to find that a claimant either is or is not disabled at a particular step, he must not go on to the next step. The five steps are as follows:[6]

(1) Step one: the ALJ evaluates the claimant's work activity, if any. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
(2) Step two: the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. If there exists no severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment (or combination of impairments) that meets the duration requirement, the claimant is not disabled.

(3) Step three: the ALJ also considers whether the claimant has an impairment (or combination of impairments) that meets or equals one listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App 1, and meets the duration requirement. If so, the ALJ must find that the claimant is disabled.

Before the ALJ goes from step three to step four, he must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity, which the ALJ then must use at both step four and step five when evaluating the claimant's alleged disability.

(4) Step four: the ALJ must consider his assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity and his past relevant work. If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, the ALJ must find that he is not disabled.
(5) Step five: the ALJ must consider the claimant's residual functional capacity and his age, education, and work experience to see if the claimant can make an adjustment to other work. A claimant who can make an adjustment to other work is not disabled, but one who cannot is disabled.

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

In reviewing the ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits, the Court may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility. Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir.1994). Instead, judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Foster v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 279 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir.2001), and whether the ALJ employed the proper legal standards in reaching his conclusion. Landsaw v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir.1986).

III. FINDINGS OF FACT

For the court's convenience, a redacted copy of the ALJ's opinion, with those portions not pertaining to his discussion of his mental impairments excised, is appended hereto as Attachment A.

The ALJ determined that Mr. Morales has the residual functional capacity to perform light work, with certain exertional limitations, and that he can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions in two-hour segments, and he can tolerate occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers but should have no contact with the general public.[7] The ALJ conducted a thorough review of the evidence and cited specific documents or testimony that supported his conclusion, but his summary of his reasoning was:

...[The] claimant's reported mental limitations are rather extreme and are not consistent with the record as a whole. He reports many years of symptoms but has made relatively little effort to seek treatment, which suggests that he is able to function adequately to perform most daily activities despite his impairments.[8]

Mr. Morales argues that the disabling effects of his mental health problems are indeed consistent with the record as a whole, and asserts that the ALJ erred not only in making this statement, but in giving undue weight to the opinions of the two record-reviewing consultants, whose reports were based on incomplete information.[9] Mr. Morales asserts that the ALJ should have relied instead on the opinions of the consultative examiners, who had the opportunity to interview, observe and test him.

A. The Evidence Pertaining to Mr. Morales's Mental Health

Mr. Morales's evidence pertaining to his mental health diagnoses, status, and attempted treatment is not voluminous. Nevertheless, he testified about his symptoms at his hearing, and the record contains some documentation of a recent attempt to obtain treatment, plus the reports of two consultative examinations and of two state-agency record reviewers. The magistrate judge will discuss the relevant portions of each below.

Mr. Morales's Testimony and Application Documents

At the administrative hearing, Mr. Morales testified that he is unable to sustain any employment because of persistent distractibility, specifically from his daily struggle with hearing the voices of demons in his head.[10] He testified: "They belittle me. Just try to keep me from completing a task. They try to keep me from being the man that God wants me to be. They try to steer me away from the word of God, try to get me to do things that I know are morally wrong."[11] Mr. Morales also testified he talks back to the demon voices, which embarrasses him, and that he becomes chronically sleep-deprived when his is in a manic phase of his bipolar disorder, which affects his ability to interact appropriately with other people.[12] Nevertheless, he stated that he plays guitar at Moore Grace Ministries four days a week, and is a part of their music ministry program.[13] He did not, however, clarify whether he was being ministered to, or whether he was playing as part of an effort to minister to others.

Mr. Morales told both of the consultative examiners that he had been institutionalized at Bellevue Hospital in New York in the 1970s, but there is no documentation of this stay in the administrative record, [14] and there are scant records that Mr. Morales has received any other mental health treatment.

In his application documents, Mr. Morales stated that he is adaptable to changes in routine, can complete tasks most of the time, and stopped work only because of his broken ankle[15] but also noted that he does not handle stress well and has bipolar tendencies.[16] His mother reported that he does not ...


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