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Miller v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Colorado

June 13, 2019




         This civil action arises under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83(c), for review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) final decision denying Plaintiff Timothy Miller's (“Plaintiff” or “Mr. Miller”) application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Parties' consent [#13], this civil action was referred to this Magistrate Judge for a decision on the merits. See [#21]; 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73; D.C.COLO.LCivR 72.2. Upon review of the Parties' briefing, the entire case file, the Administrative Record, and the applicable case law, this court respectfully AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         SSI is available to an individual who is financially eligible, files an application for SSI, and is disabled as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. An individual is under a disability only if his “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 13382c(a)(3)(B). The disabling impairment must last, or be expected to last, for at least 12 consecutive months. See Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214-15 (2002); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905. And when a claimant has one or more physical or mental impairments, the Commissioner must consider the combined effects in making a disability determination. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(G). The earliest a claimant can receive SSI is the month following the month within which the claimant filed her application, and thus the claimant must establish that she was disabled on or prior to her application date. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.200, 416.335; see also Id. § 416.912(b)(1) (“Before we make a determination that you are not disabled, we will develop your complete medical history for at least the 12 months preceding the month in which you file your application”).

         The Commissioner has developed a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). These include:

1. Whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments;
3. Whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or medically equals any listing found at Title 20, Chapter III, Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;
4. Whether the claimant has the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work; and
5. Whether the claimant can perform work that exists in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). See also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988) (describing the five steps in detail). “The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis[, ]” while the Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Neilson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10th Cir. 1993). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the court limits its inquiry to whether substantial evidence supports the final decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. See Vallejo v. Berryhill, 849 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2017). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal citation omitted); accord Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992) (“Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.”). “But in making this determination, [the court] cannot reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the administrative law judge's.” Smith v. Colvin, 821 F.3d 1264, 1266 (10th Cir. 2016).


         I. Background

         A. Medical History

         Mr. Miller, born April 5, 1965, alleges he became disabled on May 1, 2015, at 50 years-of-age, due to mental problems/depression, psychotic, hernia, bad knees and ankles, irritability with people, dislocated shoulder, and diabetes. See [#10-3 at 86-87, [1] 89; #10-5 at 163; #10-6 at 175, 179, 185]. Because Mr. Miller's appeal focuses on his mental impairments and chronic pain, the following discussion focuses solely on those ailments.

         Plaintiff began treating with Paul Freda, M.D. in 1993 following a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. See [#10-2 at 54-55]. Dr. Freda diagnosed Plaintiff with Major Depressive Disorder Recurrent - Severe with Psychotic, see [#10-9 at 333; #10-10 at 411], and treatment notes from 2009 report that Plaintiff maintained his medication well in the past six months, that he felt like he had made progress in reducing his worry about his salvation, that he had successfully met his goal concerning his grief, and that he had improved his social interactions, see [#10-9 at 334]. A psychiatric exam revealed that Plaintiff was oriented and had an “okay” mood, consistent affect, average cognition/intellect, good insight to self, logical thinking, good problem solving, good emotional regulation, some pressured thoughts, no suicidal or homicidal ideation, good self-regulation, and some voices disturbing him. See [id.]. Dr. Freda noted on February 3, 2014 that Plaintiff was “[d]oing the best I have seen, ” and Plaintiff's August 22, 2014 psychiatric exam was normal as was his psychomotor activity, his mood was euthymic, his affect was pleasant, and he was good natured with emotional and behavioral stability. See [id. at 338-41].

         Plaintiff saw his treating physician Jesus Perez, M.D. on January 7, 2015 for a follow-up on his diabetes and mood disorder, and Dr. Perez noted that plaintiff “cont[inued] to overall do well” and was a “[p]leasant patient in no acute distress.” [#10-9 at 324]. Plaintiff returned to Dr. Perez on February 11, 2015, and Dr. Perez reported that Plaintiff was pleasant and in no apparent distress. See [id. at 322]. On March 3, 2015, Dr. Freda reported that Plaintiff was “[d]oing quite well” psychiatrically, that Mr. Miller's psychiatric exam was normal, that Plaintiff's psychomotor activity, mood, and affect were unchanged, and that Plaintiff “continue[d] to be his jovial self, very good natured and continue[d] with euthymia”; Plaintiff also stated he was “sleeping and eating well” and denied “elements of depression, anxiety, psychosis, hypomania or paranoia.” [Id. at 346-48].

         On May 14, 2015, Dr. Freda reported that Mr. Miller was oriented and had a logical and coherent thought process and content, normal speech and tone, good mood, consistent affect, erratic sleep, and daily thoughts of suicidal ideation with some plans but no intent. See [#10-10 at 412]; see also [id. at 420 (same as of May 24, 2016), 424 (same as of October 1, 2016)]. On May 18, 2015, Plaintiff presented to Dr. Perez, complaining of right shoulder pain after throwing a tire, though he retained good range of motion, see [#10-9 at 320]; Dr. Perez indicated that a shoulder x-ray was unremarkable and revealed, “No acute fracture or dislocation. No. significant degenerative change. No. focal lytic or sclerotic lesions” despite a history of pain. See [#10-8 at 268; #10-9 at 313]. On May 22, 2015, Dr. Freda noted that Mr. Miller's psychiatric exam was normal, he “denie[d] suicidal or destructive thoughts or urges and [did not] endorse elements of hypomania, ” and was sleeping and eating well, and Dr. Freda reported that Plaintiff was depressed and sad when discussing a recent DUI but his thoughts appeared logical and rational and he was “coping much better than he would have years ago.” See [#10-9 at 350-53].

         Dr. Freda reported that Mr. Miller was “[d]oing the best I have seen in a long time” on August 3, 2015, and Dr. Freda noted that Plaintiff's psychiatric exam was normal, that he met a woman online, he was coping better with his feelings toward God, he was sleeping and eating well, and had a euthymic mood and pleasant and cheerful affect. See [#10-9 at 354-57]. Plaintiff presented to Dr. Perez on August 5, 2015, complaining of “a little bit of LG shoulder bursitis” that was “almost 100% better, but still any kind of pushing, pulling action will kind of flare it up for a few days.” [#10-9 at 316]. Dr. Perez also noted that Plaintiff denied “any arm numbness, ” had no new injuries or trauma, had a history of “bipolar with anxiety component, ” that Mr. Miller was not suicidal or homicidal and his medication was working well, ” that Plaintiff's physical exam was largely normal, and that Plaintiff would receive physical therapy. [Id. at 316-17]. Treatment notes dated August 13, 2015 reveal that Mr. Miller was alert and oriented and answered questions appropriately. See [id. at 314].

         On September 3, 2015, Plaintiff completed a Personal Pain Questionnaire and Function Report. See [#10-6 at 187, 189]. Mr. Miller averred that he struggled with daily aching pain in his knees, right shoulder, and ankle, which cold weather and movement exacerbated and which did not respond well to Aleve or Tylenol. See [id. at 187]. Mr. Miller also averred that he struggled with severe depression recurring with psychotic features and diabetes which, in combination with his other ailments, made it difficult to do house or yard work, work, concentrate, focus, or leave the house. See [id. at 190-94]. Despite being able to handle basic hygienic tasks, Plaintiff stated that his ailments made it difficult to lift more than 10 pounds, squat, bend, stand, reach, walk more than 1 block, sit, kneel, talk, hear, climb stairs, see, remember, complete tasks, concentrate more than 5-6 minutes, understand, follow instructions more than a recipe, use his hands, and get along with others. See [id. at 190, 194-95]. He also noted that his medications cause several side-effects, such as sleepiness, dizziness, drowsiness, sensitivity to light, diarrhea, and stomach issues. See [id. at 196].

         Plaintiff's psychiatric exam was normal on November 19, 2015, and he “denie[d] suicidal or destructive thoughts or urges and really has no complaints of a psychiatric nature.” See [#10-10 at 416-18]. Dr. Freda reported that Plaintiff had a euthymic mood, pleasant and cheerful affect, intact associations, logical and rational thoughts, and that there were no signs of clinical depression, anxiety, psychosis, hypomania, or paranoia. [Id. at 419].

         On April 5, 2016, Mr. Miller's psychiatric exam was normal, and Dr. Freda noted that “[t]here seems to be a maturation process in progress, ” that Mr. Miller was coping with various life events (e.g., filing for bankruptcy and disability), was enjoying playing video games online, was paying less than adequate attention to his appearance and hygiene, and had an euthymic mood, intact associations, logical and rational thoughts, and no evidence of suicidal, homicidal, hypomanic, paranoid, psychotic processes or breakthrough anxiety or palpable depression. See [#10-10 at 428-31]. Mr. Miller's psychiatric exam was also normal on July 27, 2016, and Dr. Freda reported that Mr. Miller “is really doing pretty good, ” which ...

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