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Al-Hameed v. Colvin

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

December 30, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.

This case is before me on a Report and Recommendation (R&R) (docket no. 15) from Magistrate Judge Leonard Strand recommending that I reverse and remand a decision by the Social Security Commissioner (the Commissioner) denying Plaintiff Aseelah Al-Hameed (Al-Hameed) disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner timely filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons discussed below, I adopt Judge Strand's R&R, reverse the Commissioner's decision, and remand this case for further proceedings.


A. Procedural Background

Judge Strand summarized this case's procedural background as follows:

Al-Hameed was born in 1967 and was 42 years old on her alleged onset date of April 20, 2009. AR 8, 52. She has past relevant work as a bakery worker, cashier, housekeeper, salad bar worker and stocker. AR 267. She protectively filed her applications for DIB and SSI on April 1, 2010. AR 8. The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Al-Hameed then requested a hearing, which was conducted January 12, 2012, by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jeffrey Marvel. Id. Al-Hameed testified during the hearing, as did a vocational expert (VE). AR 36-50. The ALJ issued a decision denying Al-Hameed's application on February 27, 2012. AR 8-17. On January 5, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Al-Hameed's request for review. AR 1-3. As such, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.
On February 13, 2013, Al-Hameed commenced an action in this court seeking review of the ALJ's decision. This matter has been referred to me pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) for the filing of a report and recommended disposition of the case.

Report and Recommendation 1-2 (docket no. 15). Judge Strand issued his R&R on November 4, 2013, in which he recommended that the ALJ's decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings (docket no. 15). On November 18, 2013, the Commissioner filed objections to the R&R (docket no. 16). Al-Hameed has filed no response to the Commissioner's objections, and the deadline by which she was required to file any response has long passed. See N.D. Ia. L.R. 72.1 (2011) ("Any response to the objections [to the R&R] must be filed within 7 days after service of the objections."). I must now decide whether to adopt or reject the recommendations in the R&R in light of the Commissioner's objections.

B. ALJ's Findings

In his R&R, Judge Strand thoroughly summarized the ALJ's decision. Report and Recommendation 5-12 (docket no. 15). Neither party has objected to this summary, only to Judge Strand's application of the law. I therefore adopt the summary of the ALJ's findings from Judge Strand's R&R, which is set forth below:

The ALJ made the following findings:
(1) The claimant has disability insured status under title II of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2014 (20 CFR 404.130(b)).
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 20, 2009, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq. ).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; depression; and alcohol dependence and cocaine dependence, both in remission (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she: can occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, crawl, kneel and climb; is limited to performing simple, routine, repetitive work, with only occasional contact with the public, co-workers or supervisors; is not able to follow any written instructions; and can tolerate only occasional changes in the work setting.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on January 18, 1967, and was 42 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in spoken and written English, e.g., testimony and Exhibit 12E (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because the vocational expert stated all of the claimant's past relevant work is unskilled, Exhibit 20E (20 CFR 404.1568 and 416.968).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969 and 416.969(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 20, 2009, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).
AR 10-17. In his Step Two analysis, the ALJ noted that Al-Hameed claims she is unable to work due to back pain and depression. AR 10. He then provided a detailed summary of the medical evidence concerning her physical and mental impairments. AR 10-12. With regard to physical impairments, the ALJ referenced an October 31, 2009, radiology report as finding that Al-Hameed has mild degenerative disc disease. AR 11. He then discussed the results of a consultative examination conducted in August 2010 by Joseph Latella, D.O. Id. Dr. Latella found that Al-Hameed had a limited range of motion in the lumbar spine and noted a positive straight leg test on the right side. AR 434-37. Dr. Latella's concluding impressions included asthma, possible multiple sclerosis, back pain due to arthritis, depression and obesity. AR 436. He stated that Al-Hameed was scheduled to have an MRI the following week. Id.
The ALJ also noted that James Steele, M.D., had prescribed narcotic pain medication as of November 2010, but records of Al-Hameed's regular medication-management visits with a nurse practitioner during the year 2011 contain no mention of back pain. AR 11. In addition, the ALJ referenced a record from October 25, 2010, in which Al-Hameed is reported to have stated that she had never had an MRI or CAT scan. Id.
With regard to mental impairments, the ALJ referenced Al-Hameed's testimony that she suffers from depression and that this causes her to feel untalkative, isolative, sleepy and to have a decreased appetite. Id. He noted that she reported to have had no alcohol for the past three years after completing alcohol treatment. Id. She also reported that she does not receive mental health counseling but is seen one time each month for a medication check. Id. The ALJ also referenced the findings made by Aaron Quinn, Ph. D., a state agency consultant who reviewed available records. Id. Dr. Quinn found that Al-Hameed has been treated for depression and anxiety but that her symptoms had stabilized except when exacerbated by psychosocial stressors. AR 430. Dr. Quinn also found that Al-Hameed "would have work-related difficulties with written instructions, stress management, interpersonal functioning, and change." Id. However, he also concluded that she is "able to complete at least simple repetitive tasks on a sustained basis and she would benefit from spoken instructions and not working in crowds of people." Id.
Based on the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that the following impairments were severe: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, depression and alcohol dependence and cocaine dependence (both in remission). AR 10. He also found that two additional impairments - asthma and iron deficiency anemia - were not severe. AR 12. Al-Hameed does not challenge this finding.
Moving to Step Three, the ALJ found that none of Al-Hameed's impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 12-13. With regard to her physical impairment of degenerative disc disease, the ALJ found that neither the diagnostic criteria nor the functional manifestations met the requirements of Listing 1.04A-C. AR 13. Al-Hameed does not challenge this finding.
As for her mental impairments, the ALJ found that whether considered individually or in combination, they did not satisfy either Listing 12.04 (affective disorders) or 12.09B (substance abuse). Id. He first analyzed the "paragraph B" criteria, noting that to satisfy these criteria the impairments must cause at least two "marked" limitations or one "marked" limitation and "repeated" episodes of decompensation.[1] Id. A "marked" limitation is one that is more than moderate but less than extreme. Id. The ALJ found that Al-Hameed had mild difficulties in activities of daily living, with moderate difficulties in social functioning and with regard to concentration, persistence or pace. Id. The ALJ also found that Al-Hameed had experienced no episodes of decompensation which have been of extended duration. Id. Therefore, the ALJ found the paragraph B criteria were not satisfied. Id. He also stated that he had considered the "paragraph C" criteria and that the evidence failed to establish those criteria, as well. Id. Al-Hameed does not challenge any of these findings.
At Step Four, the ALJ provided a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment and found that Al-Hameed had the RFC to perform light work[2] with the following limitations: (a) she can only occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, crawl, kneel and climb, (b) she is limited to performing simple, routine, repetitive work, (c) she can have only occasional contact with the public, co-workers or supervisors, (d) she is not able to follow any written instructions and (e) she can tolerate only occasional changes in the work setting. AR 13-15. In explaining this determination, the ALJ first addressed the credibility of Al-Hameed's statements concerning the disabling effects of her impairments. AR 14. He referenced the relevant factors for weighing a claimant's credibility and found it to be significant that ...

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