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Mata v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 30, 2017

MICHELLE E. MATA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          R. Brooke Jackson United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner's decision denying claimant Michelle Mata's application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381- 83c. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         This appeal is based upon the administrative record and the parties' briefs. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the District Court examines the record and determines whether it contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is “overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence requires “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). In addition, reversal may be appropriate if the Commissioner applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate that the correct legal standards have been followed. Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1019.


         Ms. Mata was born on October 4, 1981. See R. 155. She has a high school education and two years of college for accounting. R. 18, 179. In the past, she has worked as a bank teller, a bartender, and as a telephone solicitor, although she has not held substantial gainful employment since at least her application date of December 27, 2012. R. 13, 179.

         A. Plaintiff's Physical Conditions.

         Plaintiff's relevant medical history related to her alleged physical disabilities begins in May of 2012. At that time, Nurse Practitioner Nancy Welter saw Ms. Mata for a few follow-up treatments for an ovarian cyst (plaintiff had polycystic ovarian disease in 2005, see R. 66) and lower right quadrant pain that radiated to her back, see R. 226-32. During these visits, Nurse Welter noted that plaintiff appeared to have some pelvic pain. Id. She subsequently prescribed plaintiff Percocet. Id.

         Over the next few months plaintiff visited the emergency room multiple times complaining of similar pains in her abdomen, but also of pain in various different parts of her body. See R. 256-331. Her physical examinations and tests performed on her during this time, however, came back mostly normal. See Id. Plaintiff nevertheless was continually prescribed pain medication during each visit. Id. Her abdominal pain was also treated successfully with trigger point injections throughout 2013 and into 2014. R. 15, 316-20, 353-54, 358-61, 365-66, 370-72, 405-06.

         Plaintiff also has a history of pain in her shoulders. Her treatment for this condition apparently began with a visit to Parkview Orthopedics in December of 2012. R. 332. During this visit, Physician Assistant Lucas Derting noted that although plaintiff complained of bilateral shoulder pain and displayed some reduced range of motion in her right shoulder, she generally had no weakness in her extremities, full range of motion in her left shoulder, and that imaging was “normal with no fracture or acute process joint space.” R. 332. Plaintiff was assessed to have impingement and frozen shoulder syndromes. R. 333. Mr. Derting recommended that plaintiff go to physical therapy. Id. However, the record reveals plaintiff did not do so consistently, if much at all. See, e.g., R. 335.

         Plaintiff appears to have had four follow-up visits for her shoulder pain at Parkview Orthopedics-one in March of 2013, one in July of 2013, one in November of 2013, and one in March of 2014. R. 335-36 (March 19, 2013 visit), 394-95 (March 6, 2014 visit), 396-97 (November 7, 2013 visit), 398-99 (July 1, 2013 visit). During these follow-ups, plaintiff generally showed some “giveaway weakness” in her shoulders, but no atrophy or neurological deficits, and only some reduced range of motion with tenderness or pain at only the extremes of this range. See Id. She received shoulder injections during each visit. Id. An MRI of plaintiff's shoulders ordered during her November 2013 visit and completed later that same month revealed tendinosis without evidence of a rotator cuff tear, as well as mild bursitis. R. 393.

         Based on these conditions, there are two assessments of plaintiff's physical disabilities in the record. First, on April 16, 2013 single decision-maker (“SDM”) Janet Weldon assessed plaintiff's condition.[1] Reviewing the record, Ms. Weldon found that Ms. Mata could occasionally lift up to 20 pounds; frequently lift 10 pounds; sit, stand, or walk for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; and occasionally reach overhead. R. 85.

         Second, on May 12, 2014 plaintiff's treating nurse, Nurse Practitioner Dawn Evert, assessed Plaintiff's physical work-related limitations. R. 401-04. Nurse Evert noted that due to plaintiff's complaints of chronic pelvic and abdominal pain, as well as her constant urinary incontinence (a condition absent elsewhere in the record aside from plaintiff's testimony during her hearing, see R. 18, 44), plaintiff could lift and carry only a maximum of 5-10 pounds occasionally or frequently, stand or walk for two hours total in an eight-hour workday and for 30 minutes at any one time without interruption, and that she could never climb, crouch, kneel, or crawl, and only occasionally balance or stoop. R. 402. Nurse Evert also opined that plaintiff could not feel or push, but could reach, handle, see, hear, and speak. R. 403.

         B. Plaintiff's Mental Conditions.

         Ms. Mata does not appear to have ever sought consistent treatment for mental health conditions. Nevertheless, there are three evaluations of her mental health or her mental work-related limitations in the record.

         First, in March of 2013 Donald Degroot, Ph.D. conducted a psychological consultative examination of plaintiff at the request of the State agency after plaintiff filed her application. R. 344-50. During that one-time examination, plaintiff reported that up until 2011 she had been consuming hard liquor on a daily basis (a bottle a day) and that she had recently quit using cocaine. R. 346. She reported herself having depression and that she has attempted suicide twice in her life, but that she had never received inpatient psychiatric treatment. R. 344-50. After various questions and tests, Dr. Degroot noted that many of plaintiff's responses were incorrect or vague and that she generally had difficulty with her concentration and memory. R. 348-49.

         Based on his examination of plaintiff and the severity of the complaints she made to him, Dr. Degroot assessed Ms. Mata as having a moderate to marked impairment in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. R. 350. He noted her ability to carry out “simple work-related decisions appears markedly impaired.” Id. “Her ability to understand, remember and carry out complex instructions [also] appear[ed] markedly to extremely impaired.” Id. Finally, Dr. Degroot opined that plaintiff's ability to interact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public appeared moderately to markedly impaired, as was her ability to respond to usual work situations and changes in a routine work setting. Id.

         Plaintiff' second evaluation was done by State agency psychological consultant James Wanstrath, Ph.D. after he reviewed the then-current record (including Dr. Degroot's evaluation). R. 62-65, 84. Dr. Wanstrath did not conduct an examination of plaintiff herself. Nevertheless, in general Dr. Wanstrath agreed with many of Dr. Degroot's opinions about plaintiff's limitations. See R. 84. He nevertheless noted his disagreement with two of Dr. Degroot's assessments. First, he took issue with Dr. Degroot's opinion regarding plaintiff's diminished decision-making ability, interpersonal interaction and response, and ability to carry out “simple instructions.” R. 84. He explained that the record revealed that plaintiff was not actively seeking mental health treatment and that she did not report any limitations in her ability to carry out the basic activities of daily life. Id. Thus, in Dr. Wanstrath's opinion, plaintiff could follow simple instructions, make simple work-related decisions, and sustain ordinary routines. R. 87. Second, he noted that while plaintiff might not be able to work closely with supervisors, co-workers, or the general public, the record revealed that she could be supervised and relate to co-workers if this contact was infrequent or not prolonged. R. 86.

         Plaintiff's last assessment was completed by Nurse Evert at the same time she completed her assessment of plaintiff's physical work-related limitations. R. 416-18. In her mental work-related limitations assessment, Nurse Evert indicated, without referencing any evidence in particular aside from plaintiff's use of medication and her complaints of pain, that plaintiff had poor to no ability to follow work rules, deal with work stress, function independently, maintain attention or concentration, or use judgment. R. 416. She also opined that Ms. Mata had no ability in various other performance areas, similarly referencing the effects plaintiff's medication had on her physically and emotionally. R. 417. Nurse Evert further supported her assessments by noting plaintiff's subjective complaints of chronic pain and that her medications made her “sleepy.” R. 416-18. She also listed four medications in the section asking for the medications plaintiff takes “for . . . her mental impairment(s)[, ]” although these appear to be medications prescribed to plaintiff for her physical conditions. R. 418 (emphasis added).

         C. ...

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