United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
SANDRA J. MURPHY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
RULING ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
JON STUART SCOLES, Magistrate Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint (docket number 3) filed by Plaintiff Sandra J. Murphy on December 18, 2013, requesting judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her applications for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Murphy asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") and order the Commissioner to provide her disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits. In the alternative, Murphy requests the Court to remand this matter for further proceedings.
II. PRINCIPLES OF REVIEW
Title 42, United States Code, Section 405(g) provides that the Commissioner's final determination following an administrative hearing not to award disability insurance benefits is subject to judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), the Commissioner's final determination after an administrative hearing not to award SSI benefits is subject to judicial review to the same extent as provided in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides the Court with the power to: "[E]nter... a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner... with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "The findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive..." Id.
The Court will "affirm the Commissioner's decision if supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence is defined as "less than a preponderance but... enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion.'" Id. (quoting Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 968 (8th Cir. 2010)); see also Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1063 (8th Cir. 2010) ("Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a decision but is less than a preponderance.").
In determining whether the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") meets this standard, the Court considers "all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but it [does] not re-weigh the evidence." Vester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The Court not only considers the evidence which supports the ALJ's decision, but also the evidence that detracts from his or her decision. Perks v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1091 (8th Cir. 2012); see also Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007) (Review of an ALJ's decision "extends beyond examining the record to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's decision; [the court must also] consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from that decision."). In Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals explained this standard as follows:
This standard is something less than the weight of the evidence and it allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of choice within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant or deny benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal.'
Id. (quoting Turley v. Sullivan, 939 F.2d 524, 528 (8th Cir. 1991), in turn quoting Bland v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 533, 535 (8th Cir. 1988)). In Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549 (8th Cir. 2011), the Eighth Circuit further explained that a court "will not disturb the denial of benefits so long as the ALJ's decision falls within the available zone of choice.'" Id. at 556 (quoting Bradley v. Astrue, 528 F.3d 1113, 1115 (8th Cir. 2008)). "An ALJ's decision is not outside that zone of choice simply because [a court] might have reached a different conclusion had [the court] been the initial finder of fact.'" Id. Therefore, "even if inconsistent conclusions may be drawn from the evidence, the agency's decision will be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Chamberlain v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 1489, 1493 (8th Cir. 1995)); see also Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010) ("If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, we will not reverse the decision merely because substantial evidence would have also supported a contrary outcome, or because we would have decided differently."); Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 522 (8th Cir. 2009) ("If there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusion, we may not reverse even though there may also be substantial evidence to support the opposite conclusion.' Clay v. Barnhart, 417 F.3d 922, 928 (8th Cir. 2005).").
A. Murphy's Education and Employment Background
Murphy was born in 1972. She has a bachelors degree in teaching, although her teaching experience is limited to three months of substitute teaching. Her work history consists primarily of being a pizza delivery driver, an office assistant, and a service support specialist with a telecommunications company.
B. Administrative Hearing Testimony
1. Murphy's Testimony
At the time of hearing, Murphy was living with her mother. Murphy has a driver's license, but doesn't "drive a lot" and her mother drove her to the hearing. Murphy testified that she is 5 foot 7 inches or 5 foot 8 inches tall, and weighed 360 pounds, having "gained 160 pounds back in the past two-and-a-half years." (AR 38) Murphy testified that she used to walk regularly, but it was "really hard to keep on track" due to her depression.
According to Murphy, she suffers from "extreme social anxiety, " and therefore would go on Facebook for social interaction. (AR 39) At times, she would be on Facebook up to 10 hours per day, although she told the ALJ that "I try not to spend that much time on the computer now." (AR 40) Murphy acknowledged that "I can use the computer."
Murphy testified that because she has "such disordered sleeping and eating and hygiene, I just can't even leave the house. I barely leave my room." (AR 40). According to Murphy, "I almost didn't get out of my bed for a year-and-a-half." Murphy told the ALJ, however, that "I feel a little bit more on the upswing now." (AR 40)
Murphy testified that she is treated by a psychiatrist, sees her counselor every six weeks, and has a "community support worker ("CSW"). The CSW comes to Murphy's house once a week and helps her with organizational tasks at home, such as paying bills and cleaning her room. Murphy was also involved in other programs at the Abbe Center.
When asked by her attorney what her most severe psychological problem was in her opinion, Murphy responded: "Probably just the physical side of the depression." (AR 44) Murphy testified that her low energy level made it difficult to interact with people and respond to their questions. Murphy testified that she would sleep all day and then have "horrible insomnia" at night. (AR 45)
In addition to depression, Murphy testified that she has panic attacks which she believes may be caused by anxiety over social situations. She limited her social activities to grocery shopping once or twice a month, usually late at night and with her mother. She stopped seeing friends from high school because she was "worried that they were talking about me and that they were having negative thoughts toward me, and they were trying to destroy my reputation or what have you." (AR 48)
2. Vocational Expert's Testimony
At the hearing, the ALJ provided vocational expert Carma Mitchell with a hypothetical for an individual
who is capable of medium work as that term is defined in the DOT, and regulations; who is capable of performing... simple, routine tasks and simple work-related decisions with few workplace changes, with only brief and superficial interaction with the public and coworkers and occasional interaction with supervisors.
(Administrative Record at 56.)
The vocational expert testified that with such limitations, Murphy would not be able to perform her past work. The vocational expert testified, however, that she would be capable of performing the following jobs: (1) unskilled mail clerk, (2) photocopy machine operator, (3) collator operator, and (4) officer helper.
Murphy's attorney added additional restrictions, including missing more than four days of work a month, being unable to maintain attention for two-hour segments, needing to take unscheduled rest breaks two or three times each work day of 20 to 30 minutes each, and being unable to respond to changes in a routine work setting. The vocational expert testified that any one of those limitations would preclude competitive employment.
C. Murphy's Medical History
Murphy has been treated almost exclusively at the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The first progress note in the administrative record is dated January 28, 2009, although she was apparently seen at the Abbe Center for at least a couple of years prior to that. When seen on January 28, 2009 by Dr. Collyer Ekholm, M.D., a staff psychiatrist at the Abbe Center, Murphy's mood was euthymic. Her affect was appropriate and "fairly full." Her speech was "of regular rate and rhythm, goal oriented, and logical." (AR 315) She said she was "depressed" by the fact that there were "so many young skinny women around, " but Dr. Ekholm discussed with her that "this does not cause clinical depression and that citalopram will not help that." Dr. Ekholm decreased Murphy's prescription for citalopram to the amount which she had actually been taking per day.
While being followed by Dr. Ekholm, Murphy received counseling from Karen Penick, LISW, who was also employed at the Abbe Center. In a progress note dated February 2, 2009, Penick reported that Murphy's mood was "cooperative" and her affect was "appropriate." Murphy told Penick that she had "some anxiety and some depression, " but had no difficulties with sleep. (AR 314) At that time, Murphy continued to express an interest in teaching and was going to submit applications.
When seen again by Penick on March 11, 2009, Murphy was depressed and her affect was dysphoric. She reported an increase in appetite with subsequent weight gain, "which she feels depressed about." (AR 312) She had been sleeping a lot during the day because of her depression and her motivation was poor. Murphy also reported feeling sad regarding the end of a relationship with her male friend.
On March 25, 2009, Murphy met again with Dr. Ekholm. Apparently, Murphy had increased the dose of her medication because she started to have a return of panic attacks. (AR 311) Murphy's mood was euthymic, her affect was appropriate but somewhat restricted, and her speech was of regular rate and rhythm, goal oriented, and logical.
Murphy was apparently not seen again at the Abbe Center until her annual review on November 30, 2009. At that time, her mood and affect were depressed. Penick reported that Murphy "was weeping throughout today's session." (AR 308) Murphy was still grieving the loss of a relationship with her boyfriend and was upset that she had gained over 40 pounds of the weight which she had lost the previous year while on a weight loss program. She also discontinued her psychiatric medication as she thought that was possibly contributing to her weight gain. Murphy reported to Penick that her motivation and energy were "variable, " and "when she feels significantly depressed, she will stay in bed all day." (AR 309) Murphy reported, however, that things were "going better" in her work life. She was promoted to shift manager at Pizza Hut and was working 25 hours a week. She had also started substitute teaching. It was agreed that she would see Dr. Ekholm and discuss getting back on some type of medication.
Murphy met with Dr. Ekholm on December 2, 2009. At that time, her mood was "somewhat apathetic" and her affect was "restricted." (AR 304) Murphy did not mention any difficulty with panic attacks, and denied the return of vegetative symptoms of depression. Murphy acknowledged that she did not have the motivation to get up and exercise, which she attributed to attention deficit disorder.
On December 14, 2009, Murphy met with Penick and expressed frustration that she was not using her teaching degree and was making far less money than if she was teaching. Murphy reported that "she sometimes gets tired of the lack of professionalism in that type of environment [at Pizza Hut] as well as the drama." (AR 302) Murphy was "leaning" toward quitting her job at Pizza Hut and taking more substitute teaching jobs. Murphy stated that she had not had any recent panic attacks, although sometimes she experienced some depression and ...