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Poulos v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 5, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Plaintiff's Complaint (# 1), the Plaintiff's Opening Brief (# 15), the Defendant's Response (# 16), and the Plaintiff's Reply (# 17). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and the matter is remanded for further proceedings.


         The Court has jurisdiction over an appeal from a final decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         A. Procedural History

         Michelle Poulos seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act.[1] In January 2012, Ms. Poulos filed for DIB, claiming she became disabled in October 2010. Tr. at 785-94. Following remand by the Appeals Council, her application was denied at all administrative levels and she now appeals to this Court.

         B. Factual Background

         The Court summarizes only the medical evidence relevant to its decision. Here, the dispositive issue concerns the weight given to the medical opinions as to limitations in Ms. Poulos' mental capacity. At the time of her alleged onset of disability, Ms. Poulos was 40 years old. Tr. at 787. She was previously employed as a cashier and in customer service. Tr. at 841.

         In June 2012, Dr. Brent Geary, a consulting examiner, saw Ms. Poulos for a mental evaluation. Tr. at 984-89. Dr. Geary observed that Ms. Poulos' motor level was elevated but observed no other mannerisms or physiological symptoms. Tr. at 985. Though her speed of speech was hastened, her associations were logical. Tr. at 985. She appeared nervous to Dr. Geary but was able to focus on the topics at hand. Tr. at 985. He estimated her intellectual functioning to be at the bottom of the average range. Tr. at 985. Ms. Poulos scored 29 out of 30 on the modified Mini Mental Status Examination, incorrectly identifying a clock to read 1:55 instead of 11:10. Tr. at 985. Based on his examination, Dr. Geary diagnosed Ms. Poulos as suffering from bipolar disorder (currently moderate), history of alcohol abuse, and victim of physical abuse as an adult. Tr. at 987. He then opined that she had no limitations understanding and memory, but was unreliable, disorganized, and prone to leave tasks and duties undone. Tr. at 988. With regard to social interaction, she was able to get along, but she was withdrawn at the exam. Tr. at 988. Finally, he opined that she would have difficulty with change in the workplace because she is not organized and a disruption of structure would cause her trouble. Tr. at 988.

         In July 2012, Dr. S.K. Castro, a state-agency non-examining physician, completed a psychiatric review technique (PRT). Tr. at 990-1003. She found Ms. Poulos to be mildly limited in her activities of daily living, and moderately limited in both social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. Tr. at 1000. She found no episodes of decompensation. Tr. at 1000. In explaining her opinion, Dr. Castro noted that Ms. Poulos' statements are generally consistent and credible, but she only gave partial weight to Dr. Geary's opinion that Ms. Poulos would have difficulty with workplace changes because it was not consistent with the overall evidence. Tr. at 1002. She concluded that the overall evidence supports no more than moderate limitations in all work-related mental abilities. Tr. at 1002.

         Dr. Castro later completed a mental residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment based on her review of the record in July 2013. Tr. at 1051-53[2] . She found Ms. Poulos was not significantly limited in many areas of ability: remembering locations and work procedures, understanding and remembering both simple and detailed instructions, carrying out simple instructions, performing activities on a schedule with regular and punctual attendance, sustaining an ordinary routine without supervision, working in proximity with others without distraction, making simple work-related decisions, asking simple questions, getting along with coworkers without distraction, maintaining socially appropriate behavior, being aware of normal hazards and taking precautions, traveling in unfamiliar places, and setting realistic goals and plans independent of others. Tr. at 1051-52. Dr. Castro found Ms. Poulos moderately limited in carrying out detailed instructions, maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods, completing a normal workweek without interruptions from symptoms, interacting appropriately with the public, accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism, and responding appropriately to changes at work. Tr. at 1051-52.

         In October 2013, Dr. Constantina Abarikwu, Ms. Poulos' treating physician, completed a mental capacity evaluation. Tr. at 1102-03. She treated Ms. Poulos from 2010 when she was diagnosed with bipolar depression and migraine headaches since 2010. Tr. at 1102. Despite treatment with medication and psychological counseling, Dr. Abarikwu found that Ms. Poulos to be moderately limited in her ability to respond appropriately to coworkers and perform repetitive tasks. Tr. at 1102. Ms. Poulos' limitations were moderately severe with regard to understanding, carrying out, and remembering instructions; responding appropriately to supervision; performing simple tasks; and demonstrating reliability. Tr. at 1102-03. Ms. Poulos was also severely limited in responding to customary work pressures, performing complex tasks, maintaining attention and concentration, and demonstrating emotional stability. Tr. at 1102-03. Dr. Abarikwu stated that these findings were based on regular office visits and in consultation with Ms. Poulos' psychologist. Tr. at 1103. She concluded that Ms. Poulos does not have the mental stamina to sustain full-time employment due to intermittent memory lapses and alterations in mental state, as well as anxiety, social phobias, and decreased concentration. Tr. at 1103.

         C. The ...

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