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Stickline v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 26, 2016

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



Plaintiff Scott Alan Stickline appeals from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner’s final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), filed pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, and his application for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”), filed pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383c. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have not requested oral argument, and the Court finds it would not materially assist in its determination of this appeal. After consideration of the parties’ briefs and the administrative record, the Court affirms the ALJ’s decision and the Commissioner’s final order.


I. Procedural History

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision denying his applications for DIB and SSI benefits filed January 30, 2012, in which he alleged his disability began October I, 2009. [AR 168-180] After the application was initially denied on April 30, 2012 [AR 76-101], an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on June 25, 2013 at the Plaintiff’s request. [AR 50-75] At the hearing, Plaintiff amended the alleged onset date of his disability to April 2, 2010. [AR 54] The ALJ issued a written ruling on July 24, 2013, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled since April 2, 2010, because considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity (“RFC”), he could perform his past relevant work and there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [AR 17-33] The SSA Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff’s administrative request for review of the ALJ’s determination, making the SSA Commissioner’s denial final for the purpose of judicial review. [AR 2-7] See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Plaintiff timely filed his complaint with this Court seeking review of the Commissioner’s final decision.

II. Plaintiff’s Alleged Conditions

Plaintiff was born on April 13, 1963; he was 47 years old on the alleged disability onset date and 51 years old on the date of the hearing. [AR 25] Plaintiff claimed he became disabled on April 2, 2010, and reported that he was limited in his ability to work by bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and chronic lower back pain. [AR 54, 221] Plaintiff is a high school graduate with a two-year college degree in computer science. [AR 55, 438]

A. Mental Impairments

Plaintiff first took medication to treat symptoms of depression in the early 1990’s, [AR 438], but did not obtain regular mental health care treatment until April 2011. [AR 371-436; 627-715]. On April 2, 2010, Plaintiff sought treatment at the Stout Street Clinic for depression and was prescribed Cymbalta. [AR 394] At a follow-up appointment the next month, Plaintiff reported that he did not feel better, and he was prescribed Wellbutrin in addition to Cymbalta. [AR 392] On July 23, 2010, Plaintiff was hospitalized for nausea, vomiting, and dehydration. [AR 444-447] On December 7, 2010, Plaintiff was hospitalized for methamphetamine intoxication, and was also discovered to have pneumonia. [AR 328, 353]

Following the May 2010 visit, Plaintiff did not return to the Stout Street Clinic seeking treatment for depression until April 2011. [AR 389] He reported he had stopped taking Cymbalta and Wellbutrin because “he was frustrated that ‘nothing worked’”; he was then prescribed Hydroxyzine and Zoloft. [Id.] On June 2, 2011, Plaintiff reported he still suffered severe anxiety and depression, poor appetite, weight loss, and possible auditory hallucinations. [AR 388] He reported he was still working odd jobs, but his motivation was extremely low. [Id.] On June 16, 2011, Plaintiff reported that his mood continued to be extremely dysthymic, he struggled to sleep, and he continued to lose weight. [AR 388] He was instructed to discontinue Hydroxyzine, increase Zoloft dosage, and begin taking Abilify. [AR 387]

Plaintiff reported on July 15, 2011 that he had no improvement in his depression while taking Zoloft, and the doctor discussed the possibility that depression may not be the proper diagnosis. [AR 386] He was instructed to continue taking Zoloft and prescribed a higher dosage of Abilify. [Id.] On August 29, 2011, Plaintiff reported to the Stout Street Clinic that he had stopped all medication a week earlier and had noticed no difference. [AR 427-429] The provider introduced the possibility that Plaintiff had a mood disorder that was not depression and prescribed the mood stabilizer, Lithium. [Id.] Plaintiff returned to the Stout Street Clinic on January 13, 2012 and reported that he had taken Lithium for a month “but stopped it because he felt it wasn’t working.” [AR 430] He was feeling frustrated and discouraged that medication was not helping his symptoms. [Id.] The provider discussed the possibility of a bipolar disorder diagnosis and was and prescribed Lamotrigine. [Id.] Plaintiff reported on February 14, 2012 that symptoms had worsened. [AR 433]

On May 11, 2012, Plaintiff reported he had again stopped all his medication, that “he didn’t feel particularly worse or better” but that at one point his anxiety was almost “unbearable.” [AR 663] The provider diagnosed bipolar disorder NOS but noted she was “unsure of diagnosis.” [Id.] Plaintiff was prescribed Lexapro and Lorazepam. [AR 664] Symptoms of depression and anxiety continued in July, and the provider noted that “antidepressants haven’t been activating and attempts at mood stabilizers haven’t been impressive. May reconsider diagnosis.” [AR 682] Providers continued to adjust medications in September, October and December 2012, but Plaintiff remained depressed and agitated, and had difficulty sleeping. [AR 691, 696, 698, 700, 703] A diagnosis of PTSD was added to the bipolar disorder diagnosis. [AR 692] Plaintiff started group therapy in January 2013 and continued for about a month. [AR 710, 714]

A. Frederick Leidal, Psy. D.

The Disability Determination Services referred Plaintiff for a consultative psychological examination by Frederick Leidal, Psy. D. on April 20, 2012. [AR 437-442] Dr. Liedal noted that Plaintiff’s allegations “related to disability are vague” and Plaintiff explained that when he works he is “overwhelmed with depression for a long time, and it’s getting worse[.]” [AR 437] Plaintiff last worked four months earlier but claimed he had been depressed for fifteen years. [AR 438]

Plaintiff’s activities of daily living included waking up, dressing, and taking care of personal hygiene needs without assistance. [AR 439] Plaintiff spent time each day looking for a job but sometimes felt too stressed and went home to sleep. [Id.] He was functional in his ability to manage finances and transportation, though his social activities were limited. [Id.] Dr. Liedal concluded that Plaintiff seemed to have functional adaptive skills. [Id.]

Dr. Liedal’s mental status examination reflected normal appearance and behavior, though Plaintiff seemed “melancholic, negative, down on himself, and needy.” [AR 439] Plaintiff’s communication skills and thought content were normal and average, though his abilities to understand more complex directions and language were below average. [Id.] Plaintiff’s mood was “flat, sad, and occasionally grimacing.” [Id.] Plaintiff felt guilty about being sleepy and “not working.” [Id.] Dr. Liedal determined Plaintiff’s mood was stable and depressed with no overt signs of anxiety. [AR 440] Plaintiff’s sensory and cognitive functioning, including common sense, mental processing, and intelligence, were fair; Dr. Liedal concluded that evidence of diminished capacity was unremarkable. [Id.]

Dr. Liedal found no evidence supporting perceptual disturbances, posttraumatic stress syndrome, aggressive behaviors, or dissociative events. [Id.] His findings were mixed with respect to judgment and insight: problem solving abilities and behavioral understanding were below average; consequential thinking and behavioral control was fair. [Id.]

Dr. Liedal diagnosed Plaintiff with depressive disorder NOS and personality disorder NOS [schizoid, avoidant and dependent features]. [Id.] Given the reported and observed symptoms, Dr. Liedal determined that Plaintiff’s symptoms were chronic since childhood. [AR 441] He made the following functional assessment based on Plaintiff’s age expectations: (1) Plaintiff’s ability to follow instructions was normal; his ability to follow more complex directions was less than average; (2) Plaintiff’s ability to concentrate and provide information, as well as perform simple tasks, was normal; his ability to perform multi-step tasks was below average; (3) Plaintiff’s ability to relate to others was below average and he had a chronic history of social avoidance; and (4) Plaintiff’s ability to withstand the stress of day-to-day work activity was below average. [AR 441-42]

B. MaryAnn Wharry, Psy. D.

On April 29, 2012, MaryAnn Wharry, Psy. D. reviewed the record, giving great weight to Dr. Liedal’s opinion, and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of SSD or SSI. [AR 76-85; 88-97] She concluded that Plaintiff’s condition resulted in some limitation in the ability to perform work related activities, but the condition was not severe enough to keep Plaintiff from working. [AR 87] Dr. Wharry explained that Plaintiff’s symptoms “may interfere with completion of a normal workday or workweek or may cause inconsistent pace. However, when work does not require more than simple instructions, ordinary routines and simple work decision making, limitations of attendance and pace will not prevent completion of a normal workday[.]” [AR 85] Dr. Wharry determined that Plaintiff’s work environment would need to require “[m]inimal interaction with coworkers, public and supervisors.” [Id.]

C. Suzanne Orahood, Clinical Nurse Specialist

Suzanne Orahood is a Clinical Nurse Specialist at the Stout Street Clinic who stated that she met with Plaintiff for 30-45 minutes every six weeks. [AR 513] On October 16, 2012, Ms. Orahood completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire assessing Plaintiff’s limitations. [AR 513- 520] She identified the following symptoms: appetite, sleep, and mood disturbances; recurrent panic attacks; anhedonia or pervasive loss of interests; feelings of guilt/worthlessness; difficulty concentrating; social withdrawal or isolation; decreased energy; intrusive recollections of traumatic experiences; persistent anxiety; episodes of violence; and memory problems. [AR 513-514] Ms. Orahood determined that ...

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