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Cornell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

March 26, 2015

AMANDA J. CORNELL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

RICHARD G. KOPF, Senior District Judge.

In this social security appeal, plaintiff Amanda J. Cornell ("Cornell") argues that the Commissioner of Social Security committed reversible error in determining that she is not entitled to supplemental security income. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

I. BACKGROUND

On December 22, 2008, Cornell protectively filed her application for supplemental security income. (Tr. 32, 400.) Cornell's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. On August 6, 2012, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued a decision finding that Cornell was not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 183-94.) However, Cornell appealed and the Appeals Council remanded the case back to the ALJ to further evaluate Cornell's mental impairments. (Tr. 202-05.)

On remand, the ALJ held a hearing with a medical expert, Dr. Thomas England ("England"), and a vocational expert, Theresa Wolfert ("Wolfert"). (Tr. 42.) On August 9, 2012, the ALJ again concluded that Cornell was not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. In his decision, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential analysis prescribed by the Social Security Regulations to evaluate Cornell's claims.[1] See 20 C.F.R. ยง 416.920(a). The ALJ found as follows:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 22, 2008, the application date (20 CFR 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder; personality disorder, not otherwise specified; history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); history of alcohol and marijuana abuse; history of lower back pain; and obesity (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d)).
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 416.967(b), as she can lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, sit for 6 hours and stand for 6 hours and with normal breaks complete normal workday. However, due to her conduct, she would need direction to perform even simple tasks at home and in the work setting with supervisors and peers. She would have to be told to do simple repetitive tasks and could not do simple 1, 2, or 3 step procedures. She would have to be redirected on a consistent basis and would not have the ability to continue her concentration because of the interference from her mental symptoms.
5. The claimant has no past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).
6. The claimant was born on November 29, 1988 and was 18 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged onset date (20 CFR 416.963).
7. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964).
8. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work (20 CFR 416.968).
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, based on all of the impairments, including the substance use disorder, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that claimant can perform (20 CFR 416.960(c) and 416.966).
10. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities; therefore, the claimant would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.
11. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d)).
12. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would have the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b), as she can lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, sit for 6 hours and stand for 6 hours and with normal breaks complete an 8-hour workday, and she has unlimited use of the extremities. She would be able to do normal activities of daily living, such as take care of herself and do things around the house. Socially, she would have a difficulty in selecting good friends as opposed to bad friends but would have the ability to recognize the problems she is getting into by the type of associations she is making and her temper outbursts and agitation symptoms would not interfere in the workplace with peers and supervisors so that she would be able to behave herself in such a manner to consistently hold a job; perform simple 1, 2, or 3 step procedures; understand and follow simple instructions; and satisfactorily work and complete an 8hour work day and 40-hour work week.
13. As indicated above, the claimant does not have past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).
14. As indicated above, transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work (20 CFR 416.968).
15. If the claimant stopped the substance use, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there would be a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant could perform (20 CFR 416.960(c) and 416.966).
16. The substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because the claimant would not be disabled if she stopped the substance use (20 CFR 416.920(g) and 416.935). Because the substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, the claimant has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from the date the application was filed through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 17-32.) After the ALJ issued his decision, Cornell filed a request for a review with the Appeals Council. (Tr. 9-10.) On January 29, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Cornell's request for review. (Tr. 1-6.) Thus, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A denial of benefits by the Commissioner is reviewed to determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 960 (8th Cir. 2001). "Substantial evidence" is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion. Id. at 960-61; Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). Evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision must be considered, but the decision may not be reversed merely because substantial evidence supports a contrary outcome. See Moad v. Massanari, 260 F.3d 887, 890 (8th Cir. 2001).

This court must also review the decision of the Commissioner to decide whether the proper legal standard was applied in reaching the result. Smith v. Sullivan, 982 F.2d 308, 311 (8th Cir. 1992). Issues of law are reviewed de novo. Olson v. Apfel, 170 F.3d 820, 822 (8th Cir. 1999); Boock v. Shalala, 48 F.3d 348, 351 n.2 (8th Cir. 1995).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Relevant Medical History and Opinions

On January 24, 2008, Cornell visited George Young, M.D. ("Young"), a contract psychiatrist for Action Partnership Inc. (formerly GOCA). (Tr. 1111.) Young noted that Cornell had "a long history of substance abuse and defiance." ( Id. ) Young found Cornell to be cooperative and nicely dressed, but concluded that she possessed a below average fund of general information. (Tr. 1113.) She did not appear to be depressed, her eye contact was "all right, " and her associations of speech were normal. ( Id. ) Young diagnosed Cornell with bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and a history of marijuana and alcohol abuse, minimal, in remission. ( Id. )

On February 2, 2008, Lee Branham, PhD ("Branham"), completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment and a Psychiatric Review Technique of Cornell. (Tr. 1114-30) In the Assessment and Review, Branham concluded Cornell was moderately limited in a number of areas, but that her condition would not markedly limit her work abilities. ( Id. )

On March 12, 2008, Cornell went to Douglas County Community Mental Health Center ("DCH") because she wanted "to get general assistance." (Tr. 1402.) She reported that she used marijuana once a week and that she had been previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (Tr. 1402.)

On November 14, 2008, Cornell admitted herself to DCH for "increased mania and irritability." (Tr. 1153.) Cornell indicated she had been off of her medications for two months and admitted increased irritability, distractibility, racing thoughts, decreased sleep, and increased promiscuity. ( Id. ) After a successful treatment regimen, staff psychiatrist Tenycia Shepherd, M.D. ("Shepherd"), discharged Cornell to Lasting Hope Recovery Center. (Tr. 1153-1154.) In describing Cornell's discharge condition, Shepherd noted Cornell had the capacity to follow through with her treatment plan, and she was able to seek medical substance use or mental health treatment as needed. (Tr. 1154.) Shepherd opined that Cornell's mental functioning showed she had a good mood, a blunted affect, spontaneous speech, goal-directed thought processes, normal thought content, a clear sensorium, full cognition, intact recent and remote memory, and an adequate fund of knowledge. ( Id. ) However, Cornell's insight and judgment were "fair to poor, " and Shepherd's prognosis was "guarded." ( Id. )

On January 8, 2009, Community Alliance ("CA") staff performed an assessment of Cornell's "Consumer Level of Functioning." (Tr. 542.) During the assessment Cornell reported that she had anger management issues, but no anxiety. ( Id. ) She admitted to smoking marijuana once a week, and that she occasionally informed doctors that she wanted to quit smoking marijuana, but could only quit for 2-3 days. (Tr. 543.) The assessment revealed that Cornell maintained personal hygiene, did laundry, volunteered for cleaning chores, enjoyed cooking, could follow a cooking recipe, used appliances, could ...


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