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Luttrell v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2018

LISA LUTTRELL PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         Plaintiff Lisa Luttrell (“Luttrell”) began the case at bar 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”).

         Luttrell maintains that the ALJ's findings are not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.[1] Luttrell maintains that her residual functional capacity was not properly assessed and offers two reasons why. Luttrell first maintains that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of Dr. Roland Hollis, M.D., (“Hollis”), Luttrell's treating physician. Second, Luttrell maintains that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of Dr. Samuel Hester, Ph.D., (“Hester”), a consultative examiner.

         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.

         Luttrell filed her application for disability insurance benefits on November 12, 2014, and alleged that she became disabled and unable to work beginning on May 29, 2011. With respect to the relevant period in this case and the scope of evidence under review, the ALJ could and did find the following:

[Luttrell] previously filed a Title II application on January 19, 2011, and an Administrative Law Judge issued a hearing decision on June 19, 2012, finding that [Luttrell] was not disabled from May 1, 2010, the alleged onset date in that case, through June 19, 2012, the date of that decision ... The Appeals Council denied [Luttrell's] request to appeal the hearing decision; [she] filed an appeal with the Federal district court, which affirmed the prior decision ... The previous Administrative Law Judge opinion is thus final and binding in regard to the period already adjudicat[ed] with respect to [Luttrell's] January 19, 2011 Title II application.
The issue of disability as to the previously adjudicated period is res judicata, involving the same parties and legal questions. This current decision on [Luttrell's] present application thus considers only the time period beginning June 20, 2012, the day after [the] date of the prior decision, and continuing through the date of the [second Administrative Law Judge's] decision. ... [A]ny discussion of evidence from ... prior to the date of the prior administrative law judge['s] decision is limited to the purpose of providing a foundational history; there is no authority to reopen or revise the prior adjudication and consideration of the evidence relating to the prior period for historical purposes does not imply reopening or revising.

See Transcript at 23. The question for the ALJ, and the question now for review, is whether Luttrell was disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act at any time from June 20, 2012, i.e., the day after her first application for disability insurance benefits was denied, through December 31, 2014, i.e., the date Luttrell last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act.

         Luttrell ably summarized the evidence in the record, see Docket Entry 12 at CM/ECF 3-8, 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. Like the ALJ, the Court will consider evidence prior to June 20, 2012, i.e., the day after her first application for disability insurance benefits was denied, only for the purpose of placing Luttrell's impairments in an historical context.

         The record reflects that Luttrell saw Hollis on June 1, 2010. See Transcript at 409. His progress note reflects that she had been in an automobile accident and had sought emergency room medical care for the injuries she sustained. Hollis recorded Luttrell's complaints to include syncope episodes and pain in her neck, back, left arm, and left knee. It is not clear what he recommended in response to her complaints.

         Luttrell underwent testing for her syncope episodes. See Transcript at 376, 377, 374. The results of the testing were unremarkable, although an MRI of her brain revealed “[s]everal 3mm focal increased T-2 and flare signal intensity at bilateral corona radiata which may represent tiny ischemic changes ...” See Transcript at 374.

         Hollis treated Luttrell for her syncope episodes and complaints of depression on July 21, 2010; August 17, 2010; September 14, 2010; and again on October 26, 2010. See Transcript at 408, 407, 406405. He prescribed Dilantin for her syncope episodes and recommended she see a neurologist. He prescribed Celexa and Xanax for her depression and recommended she seek counseling.

         On February 22, 2011, Hester saw Luttrell for a mental diagnostic evaluation. See Transcript at 336-344. Luttrell's complaint were recorded to be as follows:

[Luttrell] reports having problems with chronic pain in both wrists and left shoulder. She has tendon and ligament damage that has required surgery in the past. It was a work related injury on her wrists and she recently fell and injured her shoulder. She has been treated for both depression and anxiety symptoms by her [primary care physician]. She has never seen mental health professionals.

See Transcript at 336. Hester diagnosed a depressive disorder and a pain disorder associated with both medical and psychological factors. With respect to Luttrell's adaptive functioning, Hester opined that Luttrell can tend to her activities of daily living; is able to communicate and interact in a socially adequate, intelligible, and effective manner; is able to attend and sustain concentration on basic tasks; is able to sustain persistence in completing tasks; but is not likely to be able to cope with the typical mental demands of basic work-like tasks or complete work-like tasks within an acceptable timeframe.

         Hollis saw Luttrell on what appears to have been five occasions between March 8, 2011, and April 4, 2012. See Transcript at 404 (03/08/2011), 403 (08/01/2011), 402 (10/11/2011), 401 (01/05/2012), 400 (04/04/2012). The progress notes reflect that Hollis treated Luttrell for her complaints of right shoulder pain, wrist pain, left knee pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), tremors, hypertension, seizures, depression, and anxiety. He prescribed, or continued her on, medications ...


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