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Higdon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

October 19, 2017

NATALIE B. HIGDON, PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Lanny King, United States District Court Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's complaint seeking judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the final decision of the Commissioner denying her claim for Social Security disability benefits. Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and Defendant's response in opposition are at Dockets 14 and 15, and the case is ripe for determination.

         The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned Magistrate Judge to determine this case, with any appeal lying before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Docket 12.

         Because the administrative law judge's (ALJ's) decision is supported by substantial evidence and in accord with applicable legal standards, the Court will DENY Plaintiff's motion (Docket 14), AFFIRM the Commissioner's final decision, and DISMISS Plaintiff's complaint.

         The ALJ's decision

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe, or vocationally significant, bipolar disorder and status post liver transplant, which limit her to a reduced range of light work. ALJ's decision at administrative record (AR), pp. 17 and 20. Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's evaluation of her physical impairment.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled because, although she can no longer perform her past relevant work, there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she can perform. AR, pp. 22 and 23.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder results in the following mental residual functional capacity (RFC): “The claimant can understand, remember and carry out both simple and detailed instructions and sustain attention for both simple and detailed tasks. She can have occasional interaction with the public and adapt to stress in a more object-oriented work setting but should avoid noisy job environments and any strict-quota based work.” AR, p. 20.

         This mental RFC finding was based, in part, on the ALJ's acceptance of the testimony of impartial medical expert Tom L. Wagner, Ph.D. Compare finding at AR, p. 20 and testimony at AR, pp. 53-54.

         In January 2015, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, David Meyer, completed the standard mental assessment form, finding that Plaintiff is no more than moderately limited in 18 of 20 functional areas and markedly limited in 2 of 20 areas. Specifically, Dr. Meyer found that Plaintiff is markedly limited in her ability to understand and remember detailed instructions (she is slightly limited in her ability to understand and remember simple instructions) and in her ability to complete a normal workday 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. AR, pp. 502-503.

         In January 2015, Plaintiff's treating therapist, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) Whitney Cassity-Caywood, Ph.D., completed the same mental assessment form. Whereas Dr. Meyer found that Plaintiff is markedly limited in her ability to understand and remember detailed instructions, Dr. Cassity- Caywood found only moderate limitation. AR, p. 521. Dr. Cassity-Caywood agreed with Dr. Meyer that Plaintiff is markedly limited in her ability to complete a normal workday and work week and to perform at a consistent pace. Id. Additionally, Dr. Cassity-Caywood found Plaintiff to be markedly limited in 3 of 20 functional areas that Dr. Meyer's found Plaintiff to be only slightly or moderately limited (ability to perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances; ability to make simple work-related decisions; and ability to set realistic goals or make plans independently of others). Compare AR, pp. 502-503 and 521-522.

         The opinion of the treating sources that Plaintiff is markedly limited in her ability to complete a normal workday and work week and to perform at a consistent pace, if accepted, would render Plaintiff unable to hold any job and, hence, disabled.

         The ALJ discounted this opinion, finding it to be inconsistent with recent improvement in Plaintiff's condition and her “impressive array [of] retained abilities” (AR, p. 21) such as being in the process of writing a book, journaling, painting, entering work in an art show, coordinating social events at an art gallery, doing volunteer work at church, on-line social networking, and visiting friends in Nashville:

The opinions offered by Dr. Meyer are given partial weight. Although Dr. Meyer shares a longitudinal treatment relationship with the claimant, his medical source statement is inconsistent with his findings that the claimant experienced improvement as well as that she is capable of volunteering at a local art gallery. Further, Dr. Meyer opined the claimant was unable to return to gainful employment; however, such ...

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