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Morris v. Berryhill

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

January 17, 2018

MICA MORRIS PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          ORDER

         Plaintiff Mica Morris (“Morris”), in her appeal of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (defendant “Berryhill”) to deny her claim for Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI), contends the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision that she is not disabled is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Morris faults the ALJ for: (1) assigning “great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Jones, a one-time consultative examiner, regarding her mental limitations; and (2) failing to properly assess her intellectual disability. The parties have ably summarized the medical records and the testimony given at the administrative hearings.

         Background:

         The history of the case is lengthy. Morris initially filed her application for benefits in September 2008, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2006. This application was denied by the ALJ, who found the Medical-Vocational Guidelines dictated a finding of not disabled because Morris had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work. (Tr. 74-83). The Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision, finding the use of the Medical- Vocational Guidelines was inappropriate since Morris suffered from the severe impairments of bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. The case was remanded with directions for the ALJ to obtain testimony from a vocational expert and consider Morris' mental limitations and their effect on her occupational base. (Tr. 88-89).

         Following a second administrative hearing, the ALJ denied the application and the Appeals Council declined review. (Tr. 9-29, 1-6). Morris then sought federal court relief, and the ALJ's decision was reversed and remanded. The Court directed the ALJ to obtain a mental RFC assessment from Morris' treating psychiatrist[1] or, in the alternative, order a consultative mental evaluation addressing her mental RFC. (Tr. 653-659).

         A third hearing was conducted in January 2015. The ALJ determined Morris was capable of performing sedentary work with numerous limitations, including limitations tied to mental impairments. Relying upon testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found, at step five of the sequential evaluation, Morris was capable of performing the jobs of assembler and inspector. Therefore, the ALJ found she was not disabled. (Tr. 666-679). The Appeals Council, however, remanded the case, finding the ALJ failed to contact Felts for clarification about Morris' mental impairments. (Tr. 688-689). The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to:

* Recontact treating psychiatrist Larry Felts, M.D., for clarification of his opinion and a medical source statement about what the claimant can still do despite her mental impairments (citation omitted). The Administrative Law Judge may enlist the aid and cooperation of the claimant's representative in developing evidence from the claimant's treating source.
* Give further consideration to the claimant's maximum residual functional capacity during the entire period at issue and provide rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of assessed limitation (citation omitted). In so doing, evaluate the treating and nontreating source opinions pursuant to the provisions of 20 CFR 416.927 and Social Security Rulings 96-2p and 96-5p, and explain the weight given to such opinion evidence.

(Tr. 689).

         A fourth hearing was conducted, and the ALJ subsequently denied the application in July 2016. The Appeals Council denied the request for review. The result is that the July 1, 2016 decision by the ALJ is the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 502-517).

         Administrative Hearing:

         At the fourth administrative hearing, Morris stated she was 38 years old, was five feet five inches tall and weighed 174 pounds.[2] Morris indicated she quit school in the ninth grade but subsequently obtained her GED. Her last work experience was as a part-time care giver many years ago. According to Morris, her most severe disabling problems are bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. She testified she lives with her boyfriend and their children, ages 20, 17, 13, and 11. She stated the kids “pretty much take care of theirself” and they help her with some household chores, although she cooked for the household, typically making microwaveable and instant meals. On occasion, Morris said she helped with cleaning chores. Morris described a very limited social life, not going shopping, to church, or to visit others. “I don't have any friends.” (Tr. 534). Although she has a driver's license, she expressed fear at driving. Morris described problems with sleeping and a lack of motivation. She stated she often wakes the children and gets them off to school, then returns to bed until the afternoon. Asked about how often she had really good days, Morris said “Here lately not many.” (Tr. 537). According to her, she deals with stress poorly, getting angry or crying and shutting down. Her daily activities are sitting in her room and watching television. Morris said the most difficult challenge of work would be “being around people.” (Tr. 539). Asked if she could perform a job where she would be alone, Morris responded, “I don't know.” (Tr. 540). She described forgetfulness, and credited her boyfriend with assisting her to take medication as prescribed. Her treating psychiatrist, Felts, died in 2015 and she now sees another physician near her residence. She walks a few blocks to her appointments. In response to questions from the ALJ, Morris stated her blood pressure is controlled with medication but she continues to have visual hallucinations despite medications. (Tr. 529-546).

         Cota Brown (“Brown”), a vocational expert, testified. The ALJ asked Brown to assume a hypothetical worker of Morris' age, education, and experience, who could perform light work with the following mental restrictions: interpersonal contact would be incidental to the work performed; complexity of tasks would involve few variables; job would require little independent judgment; supervision would be simple, direct, and concrete; and there would be no interaction with the general public. Brown indicated such a worker could not perform Morris' past work, but could perform jobs in the national economy, such as the jobs of routing clerk or merchandise marker. If the hypothetical question was altered to include a worker who could not respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations, could not tolerate even occasional pressure or stress, and she was prone to visual hallucinations, Brown testified no jobs would be available. (Tr. 547-549).

         ALJ's Decision:

         In his July 2016 decision following the fourth administrative hearing, the ALJ determined Morris had the severe impairments of schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), anxiety disorder (not otherwise specified), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), and borderline intellectual functioning. The ALJ considered the criteria of “paragraph B, ” finding Morris to have mild limitations of daily living, moderate limitations in social functioning, moderate limitations regarding concentration, persistence, and pace, and no episodes of decompensation. The ALJ assessed Morris with the RFC to perform light work with the limitations which generally mirrored[3] those specified in the first hypothetical question posed to Brown. The ALJ thoroughly reviewed the medical evidence, including the extensive treatment by Felts beginning in 2005. The ALJ addressed the 2010 notations by Felts that Morris could not work, pointing to later notations in Felts' records demonstrating improvement by Morris. Due to this improvement, the ALJ assigned “limited weight” to Felts' opinions. (Tr. 514). The ALJ noted Felts' death necessitated an examination by a consultant, Dr. Kenneth B. Jones (“Jones”), to comply with the Appeals Council's remand instructions. Jones, a psychologist, was provided and reviewed a “copy of clinical notes from Hometown Behavioral ...


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