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Ash v. Berryhill

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

July 11, 2017

KAREN DENISE ASH PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         Plaintiff Karen Denise Ash (“Ash”) 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”).

         Ash maintains that the ALJ's findings are not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.[1] It is Ash's contention that her residual functional capacity was not properly assessed, and she offers two reasons why. She first maintains that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of Dr. Roger Cagle, M.D., (“Cagle”), Ash's treating physician. Second, Ash maintains that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions contained in a mental diagnostic evaluation and intellectual assessment performed by Dr. Dennis Vowell, Psy.D., (“Vowell”). Because it is unclear why the ALJ weighed the opinions as he did, the Court finds that a remand is warranted.

         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). In making the assessment, the ALJ is required to consider the medical opinions in the record. See Wagner v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 842 (8th Cir. 2007). A treating physician's medical opinions are given controlling weight if they are well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and are not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence. See Choate v. Barnhart, 457 F.3d 865 (8th Cir. 2006). The ALJ may discount a treating physician's medical opinions if other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence or where the treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of his opinions. See Id.

         Ash alleged in her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income payments that she became disabled beginning on June 26, 2010, although she later amended her onset date to June 6, 2012. She alleged that she became disabled as a result of impairments that included chronic back pain; migraine headaches; osteoarthritis in her hands, feet, and other joints; depression; and an intellectual disability. She ably summarized the evidence in the record, see Document 10 at CM/ECF 2-14, and the Commissioner did not challenge the summary or otherwise place it in dispute. The Court accepts the summary as a fair summation of the evidence. The summary will not be reproduced, save to note several matters germane to the issues raised in the parties' briefs.

         On November 18, 2010, Ash was seen by Vowell for a mental diagnostic evaluation and intellectual assessment in connection with a prior claim for benefits. See Transcript at 504-510. Ash described her overall mood as depressed. She reported being sad most days and described feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. She additionally reported “difficulty with reading comprehension.” See Transcript at 504. She reported being previously diagnosed with a learning disability and having taken remedial classes in school. She also reported a history of chronic back pain and chronic headaches.

         Vowell noted that Ash had no history of mental health treatment. Ash had never been prescribed medication for her mental health issues, and she had never been hospitalized for any such issues. She identified “financial problems as an obstacle to treatment.” See Transcript at 505.

         Vowell also recorded Ash's personal and employment history. Ash reported that she obtained a high school diploma but was enrolled in resource classes beginning in elementary school for help with math and reading. She last worked in June of 2010 at a Family Dollar store where she served as an assistant manager. She quit the job because she was not allowed time off to visit with her daughter. Ash reported no difficulty interacting appropriately with her peers and supervisors.

         Vowell administered Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Fourth Edition (“WAIS-IV”) testing, and Ash's scores included a full scale IQ score of fifty-seven. The score placed her within the range of one mildly mentally retarded. Vowell believed Ash to have put forth her best effort and believed the score to be a valid assessment of her intellectual functioning.

         Vowell diagnosed a dysthymic disorder and mild mental retardation. With respect to the effects of Ash's mental impairments on her adaptive functioning, Vowell opined the following:

A. How do mental impairments interfere with this person's day to day [a]daptive functioning? ...
Claimant is capable of driving unfamiliar routes but currently does not have a vehicle. She is capable of shopping independently and manages her own finances. She is able to complete basic household chores and basic ADL's [i.e., activities of daily living].
B. Capacity to communicate and interact in a socially adequate manner? ...
Claimant appeared capable of adequate and socially appropriate communication and interaction in today's session.
C. Capacity to cope with the typical mental/cognitive demands of basic work-like tasks?
The [c]laimant appeared to sustain a reasonable degree of cognitive efficiently and was able to track and respond to various kinds of questions and tasks without ...

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