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Greenwood v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division

April 3, 2017

TERRI GREENWOOD PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         Plaintiff Terri Greenwood (“Greenwood”) began this case by filing a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g). In the complaint, she challenged the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), a decision based upon findings made by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         Greenwood maintains that the ALJ's findings are not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.[1] It is Greenwood's position that her residual functional capacity was not properly assessed. She so maintains for two reasons, one of which has merit. Greenwood maintains that the “meager mental limitations” found by the ALJ are not supported by the record. See Document 12 at CM/ECF 16. For the reasons that follow, the Court agrees.

         The ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is a determination of “the most a person can do despite that person's limitations.” See Brown v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 535, 538-39 (8th Cir. 2004). The assessment is made using all of the relevant evidence in the record, but the assessment must be supported by some medical evidence. See Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959 (8th Cir. 2010).

         Greenwood alleges that she became disabled beginning on January 19, 2010. She filed her application seeking supplemental security income payments on February 20, 2014, and the ALJ denied the application on June 25, 2015. The Commissioner correctly maintains that supplemental security income payments are not payable for any period prior to the filing date of the application seeking such payments. The Commissioner therefore maintains, and the Court agrees, that the relevant time period in this case is from the filing date of the application, i.e., February 20, 2014, through the date of the ALJ's decision, i.e., June 25, 2015. Although evidence prior to February 20, 2014, is outside the relevant period, the evidence will nevertheless be reviewed in order to place Greenwood's mental limitations in the proper context.

         The evidence relevant to Greenwood's mental impairments reflects that she began seeing Dr. Larry Felts, M.D. (“Felts”) at least as early as January 19, 2009, for complaints that included depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and problematic relationships. See Transcript at 412. At that time, she was taking prescription medication for depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and the medication was helping to relieve her symptoms.

         Greenwood thereafter saw Felts on what appears to have been twenty occasions through November 19, 2013. See Transcript at 411 (04/07/2009), 410 (07/06/2009), 409 (10/05/2009), 408 (01/04/2010), 407 (03/29/2010), 406 (06/17/2010), 405 (09/09/2010), 404 (12/02/2010), 403 (02/28/2011), 402 (05/26/2011), 399 (09/21/2011), 398 (12/15/2011), 397 (03/14/2012), 396 (07/10/2012), 395 (09/07/2012), 394 (12/05/2012), 393 (02/28/2013), 392 (05/24/2013), 391 (08/22/2013), 390 (11/19/2013). The progress notes reflect that although Greenwood continued to complain of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and problematic relationships, the severity of her mental problems fluctuated. Felts repeatedly diagnosed a bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder and continued Greenwood on medication for her mental problems.

         On February 11, 2014, Felts signed a “To Whom It May Concern” letter in which he addressed Greenwood's limitations caused by her mental impairments. In the letter, he represented the following:

... I have been treating [Greenwood] for Bipolar Disorder Mixed with Psychotic Features and Anxiety Disorder NOS. She has trouble maintaining the stability of her mood. Manic irritability, pressured speech, and conflicts with peers lead to her losing her job as a cafeteria worker in the past. She gets paranoid at times, as well as anxious, obsessively worried, and impulsive. Concentration and memory are poor. Panic attacks are less frequent with the help of medication, but still cause episodes of hyperventilating, shortness of breath, tachycardia, tremors, etc. Overall, her condition limits her ability to function at any job. Her condition is chronic and prognosis is poor.

See Transcript at 388.

         Greenwood thereafter saw Felts on what appears to have been five occasions between February 17, 2014, and December 9, 2014. See Transcript at 389 (02/17/2014), 387 (03/17/2014), 385 (06/12/2014), 384 (09/10/2014), 383 (12/09/2014). The progress notes reflect that her mental symptoms stabilized and even improved despite family difficulties.[2] For instance, the June 12, 2014, progress notes reflects that Greenwood was living by herself and managing her activities of daily living. She reported that Xanax was helping her panic attacks. See Transcript at 385. The September 10, 2014, progress note reflects that she was doing better. See Transcript at 384.

         On June 3, 2014, Greenwood was seen by Dr. Samuel Hester, Ph.D. (“Hester”) for a mental diagnostic evaluation. See Transcript at 321-329. He recorded her medical history and noted, inter alia, her complaints of, inter alia, anxiety and insomnia. She reported having been sexually and physically abused as a child. She additionally reported that her father was a “physically abusive alcoholic, ” and there was “a lot of drama always in the family.” See Transcript at 321. She was taking Abilify, Trazodone, Xanax, Gabapentin, and Mobic, and she reported that the medication “[kept] her symptoms relatively well controlled.” See Transcript at 321. With specific regard to her anxiety, she reported that the medication “likely causes more sedation and lethargy rather than allowing anxiety to occur.” See Transcript at 321-322. Hester observed that Greenwood was appropriately dressed and groomed, her attitude was good and cooperative, her mood did not appear to be depressed or anxious, and her affect was “appropriate to mood” but “seemed a little dulled by all the medications.” See Transcript at 323. He additionally observed that her speech did not show any abnormalities; her thought process was logical; and her thought content did not display any “overvalued ideas, no bizarre obsession, [or] preoccupations.” See Transcript at 324. He observed that she was alert and fully oriented in all spheres. His diagnoses included the following impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder, a depressive disorder, and a pain disorder. With respect to the effects of her mental impairments on her adaptive functioning, he found the following:

1. How do mental impairments interfere with this person's day to day adaptive functioning? ... [Greenwood] was able to drive unfamiliar routes. [She] was reportedly able to perform most [activities of daily living] autonomously. She does her own shopping and bill paying. She does not participate in social groups.
2. Capacity to communicate and interact in a socially adequate manner? ... [She] has the capacity to communicate and interact in a socially adequate manner.
3. Capacity to communicate in an intelligible and effective manner? [She] has the capacity to communicate in an intelligible and effective manner.
4. Capacity to cope with the typical mental/cognitive demands of basic work-like tasks? [Greenwood] can cope with the ...

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