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Shelton v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 30, 2018

SHARON J. SHELTON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Marcia S. Krieger United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff Sharon J. Shelton's appeal from the Commissioner of Social Security's (the “Commissioner”) final decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§1381-83c. Having considered the pleadings and the record, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES

         I. Jurisdiction

         Ms. Shelton filed a claim for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI in October 2013, asserting that her disability began approximately two months earlier. After her claim was initially denied, Ms. Shelton filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”). This request was granted, and a hearing was held in August 2015.

         The ALJ's Decision applied the five-step social security disability claim evaluation process and determined: (1) Ms. Shelton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after August 1, 2013; (2) she had the severe impairments of bipolar disorder, provisional borderline personality disorder, and anxiety-related disorder; (3) she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1; (4) Ms. Shelton had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of work at all exertional levels as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b)[1]with various limitations related to her ability to understand and remember instructions and interact with others; (5) she could not perform jobs that she previously held (network control operator and phlebotomist); but (6) there are jobs in the national economy suitable for an individual with Ms. Shelton's RFC, such as general clerk, file clerk II, and housekeeper. Based on this Step 5 conclusion, the Decision determined that Ms. Shelton was not and had not been disabled under the Social Security Act, and it denied her application for benefits.

         The Appeals Council denied Ms. Shelton's request for review of the Decision, making the Decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th Cir. 2011). Ms. Shelton's appeal was timely brought, and this Court exercises jurisdiction to review the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Relevant Material Facts

         Ms. Shelton submitted her application for social security benefits on October 10, 2013, claiming an onset of disability of August 1, 2013. Ms. Shelton has suffered from various undiagnosed mental disorders for many years, and in or around March 2013, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and possible borderline personality disorder.

         Until then, Ms. Shelton had engaged in a long working career, first as an IT technician, and then as a phlebotomist at Penrose Hospital. Shortly after her diagnosis, Ms. Shelton's employment was terminated. Ms. Shelton asserts that this termination was a triggering event for worsening of her mental disorders, preventing her from returning to gainful employment.

         Ms. Shelton was hospitalized four times between September 2013 and October 2014; each hospitalization was the result of severe depression and suicidal ideation (and one apparent suicide attempt). She has suffered from frequent depressed moods, hypomanic episodes, increasingly severe memory problems, severe concentration problems, and liver dysfunction (non-alcoholic cirrhosis, which may or may not have contributed to her memory problems).

         Ms. Shelton reports experiencing significant inability to control her emotions, especially including a tendency to become irrationally angry over seemingly minor incidents. She says that she can be hostile, paranoid, argumentative, and socially inept. She states that her longtime girlfriend's adult children do not like for her to be around their young children because she will become enraged over little things like the children spilling food or drink. Ms. Shelton also reports an extremely poor memory, possibly due to her liver condition, sleep apnea and/or PTSD. She says that she must be reminded to do laundry, bathe and generally take care of her personal hygiene needs. She says that she rarely cooks, because when she does, she often leaves the food to burn on the stove or in the oven. She also reports going to the grocery store to shop but then forgetting why she is there. Ms. Shelton says that her girlfriend has to assume care of her pets because she would forget to let them in and out. While Ms. Shelton is able to drive, she reports frequently getting lost and forgetting where she is.

         In February 2014, while in a manic episode, Ms. Shelton went on a spending spree, purchasing plane tickets to Europe, a 73-inch big screen television, and an eighteen-foot boat. Instead of going to Europe in February 2014, Ms. Shelton traveled by herself to El Paso, Texas, where her mother and brother lived. She testified that she had a blackout while driving and found herself in El Paso without any recollection of how she got there. With respect to the boat, Ms. Shelton was unable to learn how to operate it, and her sole attempt to use it resulted in a in her striking another craft and almost crashing into a pile of rocks. The Court further notes that there is medical evidence in the record that seemingly-irresponsible spending sprees are a common behavior in people with bipolar disorder who are experiencing a manic or hypomanic episode.

         Treatment records

         There are extensive treatment records from February 2013 through July 2015, including four hospitalizations in September 2013, March 2014, April 2014, and September/October 2014. Ms. Shelton was treated by Dr. Elliot Cohen, M.D., in March and April 2013, at which time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hypomania. She was prescribed lithium, and appeared to be responding well to the medication. She then received care for her bipolar disorder through Colorado Springs Health Partners, P.C. Medical records generally indicate that she was able to use the lithium to manage her condition, at least in the 2013 time period.

         However, in September 2013, approximately six weeks after her termination at Penrose Hospital, Ms. Shelton was hospitalized on an inpatient basis after reporting severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Ms. Shelton was hospitalized for three days, then released for outpatient treatment. Her lithium prescription was not altered, but an additional antidepressant was prescribed.

         Ms. Shelton began treatment with Rocky Mountain Counseling Center for her bipolar diagnosis after her discharge from the hospital in September 2013. She was treated by psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Harazin, M.D. He diagnosed her as suffering from PTSD, and prescribed Lamictal. Ms. Shelton met regularly with Dr. Harazin from November 2013 through June 2014, and once every few weeks from November 2014 through mid 2015. In November 2013, due to her depression, he increased the prescribed Lamictal dosage. Then, in January 2014, Dr. Harazin changed Ms. Shelton's antidepressants due to side effects. In February 2014, Ms. Shelton reported still feeling depressed, but indicated some improvement; she also reported that the new antidepressant was causing her to experience anger issues, and Dr. Harazin discontinued it and increased her prescribed dosage of Lamictal. By the end of March, Dr. Harazin's treatment notes reflect that Ms. Shelton reported “feel[ing] good” and maintaining a continued euthymic mood. However, by April 2014, Ms. Shelton told Dr. Harazin that she was experiencing mood deterioration, and there is some indication in his notes that she had stopped taking her medication.

         By the end of April 2014, Ms. Shelton was hospitalized again for suicidal ideation. This hospitalization followed her trip to El Paso where she says that she blacked out. She reported that she had stopped taking her Lamictal and had become irritable, agitated and aggressive. At the hospital, she was started on Latuda. Ms. Shelton was stabilized and discharged on April 25, 2014, and resumed treatment with Dr. Harazin. On April 30, 2014, his notes reported a euthymic mood. On May 29, 2014, she reported that the Latuda was causing her to develop rage, and it was discontinued. She also complained of anxiety but refused any medications to treat that. Dr. Harazin again reported a euthymic mood but noted that Ms. Shelton appeared anxious. Dr. Harazin also prescribed Trileptal. In June 2014, Dr. Harazin's notes reflect that Ms. Shelton had stopped taking the Trileptal but agreed to restart it. Later that month, another entry in the notes indicates that Ms. Shelton was complaining of depression, and she agreed to increase the Trileptal dosage. A June 26, 2014 entry notes that Ms. Shelton seemed “much improved” with a euthymic mood, and that the only real symptom she was experiencing was her memory problems, which possibly or even likely were attributable to her liver condition. The note indicates that Dr. Harazin believed she was responding to her medications.

         However, in July 2014, Ms. Shelton reported to Dr. Harazin that she had misrepresented her mental status at the previous session, and in fact, she was very depressed and her medications were no longer working. Dr. Harazin ordered an increased dose and prescribed additional medications. In August 2014, Dr. Harazin's treatment notes reflect that Ms. Shelton reported ...


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