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Debord v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

December 22, 2016

PAIGE D. DEBORD, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security; Defendant.


          Laurie Smith Camp Chief United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court the Motion to Reverse Commissioner's Decision, ECF No. 16, filed by Plaintiff Paige Debord, and the Motion to Affirm Commissioner's Decision, ECF No. 14, filed by Defendant Carolyn Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security. Both motions are filed pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. For the reasons stated below, the Motion to Reverse will be denied, and the Motion to Affirm will be granted.


         Debord filed for Title II benefits on December 2, 2013. Tr. 73.[1] Debord's claim was denied initially, and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on February 13, 2015. The ALJ issued an opinion on March 26, 2015, denying benefits. Debord requested review of the ALJ decision by the Appeals Council, which denied the request, thus making the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 1.

         An ALJ is required to follow a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ must continue the analysis until the claimant is found to be “not disabled” at steps one, two, four or five, or is found to be “disabled” at step three or step five. See id. Step one requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b). The ALJ found that Debord had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 16, 2013, which was her reported onset date. Tr. 13.

         Step two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a “severe impairment.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). A “severe impairment” is an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to do “basic work activities” and satisfies the “duration requirement.” See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c), 404.1509 (“Unless your impairment is expected to result in death, it must have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.”). Basic work activities include “[p]hysical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling”; “[c]apacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking”; “[u]nderstanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions”; “[u]se of judgment”; “[r]esponding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work situations”; and “[d]ealing with changes in a routine work setting.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). If the claimant cannot prove such an impairment, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c). The ALJ found that Debord had the following severe impairments: major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), borderline personality disorder, and a history of alcohol and opioid dependence. Tr. 13.

         Step three requires the ALJ to compare the claimant's impairment or impairments to a list of impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d); see also 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). If the claimant has an impairment “that meets or equals one of [the] listings, ” the analysis ends and the claimant is found to be “disabled.” See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d). If a claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, then the analysis proceeds to steps four and five. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ found that Debord did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 14.

         Step four requires the ALJ to consider the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to determine whether the impairment or impairments prevent the claimant from engaging in “past relevant work.” See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f). If the claimant is able to perform any past relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f). The ALJ found that Debord had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but also that Debord was limited to simple, repetitive, and routine work tasks with only simple workplace decision-making and only occasional interactions with the public. Tr. 16. The ALJ found that Debord was unable to perform past relevant work as a forklift driver, which involved greater capacity for understanding, remembering, carrying out complex tasks than could be tolerated under Debord's RFC. Tr. 20-21.

         At step five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is able to do any other work considering her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If the claimant is able to do other work, she is not disabled. The ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Debord could perform, and, therefore, Debord was not disabled from November 16, 2013, to the date of the decision, March 26, 2015. Tr. 21-22.


         Debord was born in 1967, Tr. 11, and graduated from high school in 1985. Tr. 498. She previously worked as a forklift operator, a position classified as semi-skilled and medium exertion. Tr. 231.

         I. Medical Opinion Evidence

         From December 12, 2013, to December 2, 2014, Debord was seen multiple times by therapists at Inroads Counseling. Throughout these visits, Debord retained a Global Assessment of Functions (“GAF”) score of 50.[3] Tr. 390, 392, 394, 397, 399, 401, 404, 435, 437, 439, 441, 443, 445, 447, 449, 452, 455, 461, 464, 466, 468, 470. At her October 2014 and November 2014 appointments, she was recorded as having no suicidal thoughts or sleep difficulties, and her thought process was listed as goal directed. Tr. 467-70. Although she stated she was able to maintain household responsibilities at her October appointment, Tr. 467, she stated she could no longer maintain them by November. Tr. 469. As of December 3, 2014, she was listed as taking Zoloft, Wellbutrin SR, Trazodone, Xanax as needed, Buspar, and Hydroxine. Tr. 472.

         On December 15, 2013, Debord's spouse, Jesse Debord completed a questionnaire describing his wife's behavior. Jesse Debord noted that his wife did not have much interest in television, socializing, or other activities she used to enjoy, such as crocheting. Tr. 198-99. In stressful situations, Jesse Debord stated that his wife “look[ed] overwhelmed, ” became “panicky” and “very quiet, ” and would cry. Tr. 199. He also stated that when plans or “situations suddenly change[d], ” she would not “react well” and “kind of panic.” Tr. 199. Jesse Debord reported that Debord took care of their daughter and did some chores. He also mentioned that she got along well with clerks when he took her to the store, and that her ability to care for herself had not been affected by the suicide attempt. Tr. 198. He ended the report stating that his wife was a very active individual but very depressed and inactive following a suicide attempt. Tr. 200.

         On November 24, 2014, Debord was evaluated for psychological functioning by Rosanna Jones-Thurman, Ph.D. Jones-Thurman first noted that Debord's “response style may indicate a broad tendency to magnify the level of experienced illness . . . .” Tr. 502. Jones-Thurman reported that Debord “evinces an agitated, major depression” and that she “anxiously expressed suicidal thoughts, and outbursts of bitter resentment interwoven with a demanding irritability towards others.” Tr. 504. Jones-Thurman stated that Debord “appears to be experiencing a severe psychotic episode characterized by bizarre thinking and fragmented emotions, perhaps a phase of an extended schizophrenic course.” Tr. 504. Jones-Thurman noted that Debord's “memory for immediate, recent, and remote events was grossly intact, ” that “[h]er concentration and attention were intact, ” and that [h]er thought organization was coherent and logical.” Tr. 501. Jones-Thurman's diagnostic impressions included Schizoaffective Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Alcohol Use Disorder, and Schizoid Personality Disorder. Tr. 506. She did not assign a GAF score.

         On January 5, 2015, Debord was evaluated for psychological functioning by Patricia Blake, Ph.D. Tr. 473-81. Blake found that Debord was “oriented, ” but that she “acted puzzled for purposes of the interview.” Tr. 475. Blake observed that Debord was “irritable and rather agitated” and that her “[a]ffect was variable and occasionally inappropriate.” Tr. 475.

         Blake found that Debord's answer to certain questions “suggest[ed] adequate concentration needed for task completion.” Tr. 475. Blake concluded that Debord has “slight” impairment when it came to “carry[ing] out detailed instructions” and “[t]he ability to make judgments on simple work-related decisions, ” but no other work-related impairments. Tr. 477-78. Blake estimated that Debord had a GAF score of 64, indicating a mild range of symptoms.[4] Tr. 476.

         On January 9, 2015, Debord was evaluated for psychological functioning by Michael Coy, M.D. Tr. 482-89. Coy completed a medical source statement, in which he diagnosed Debord with Schizoaffective Disorder, Generalized Anxiety, PTSD, and “Borderline Personality.” Tr. 482. He concluded that “Schizoaffective Disorder prevents ...

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