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Cronin v. Saul

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

December 27, 2019

Keith Cronin Plaintiff- Appellant
Andrew Saul, Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: September 24, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Jonesboro.

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, BEAM and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          Beam, Circuit Judge.

         Keith Cronin, who suffers from borderline intellectual functioning, learning delays, schizoaffective disorder, mood disorder, personality disorder, and an anxiety disorder, applied for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Cronin could perform his past relevant work as an unskilled material mixer. Alternatively, the ALJ found that there were significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that Cronin could perform given his residual functional capacity (RFC). Thus, the Commissioner denied benefits. The district court[1] affirmed this denial. Cronin appeals and we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Cronin applied for benefits on October 12, 2012, and his first ALJ hearing was in April 2014. This hearing resulted in an unfavorable decision. On appeal, the district court remanded to the ALJ, directing a more fully developed record with respect to Cronin's mental impairments and the effect they have on Cronin's RFC. In 2016, a second hearing was held with a different ALJ. The 2016 hearing established the following background facts (that we find to be supported by substantial evidence): Cronin was born in 1980 and attended school but did not graduate from high school. In fact he only completed elementary or possibly junior high course work; and though he attended sporadically due to his parents' lifestyle, he received special education services while in school, and often worked one-on-one with a special education teacher, primarily because of his explosive behavioral issues at the time. He has failed to pass the GED several times.

         Cronin testified that he was dismissed from several previous jobs for getting into serious physical confrontations with co-workers and bosses. His last employment of record was in 2004, when he was fired from his job doing highway right-of-way maintenance. When his boss refused to pay him, Cronin "flipped out on him." Prior to the highway job, Cronin worked as a picture frame maker, but he was fired from that job after being arrested for beating up another employee. Cronin spent some time in prison, he alleges, for failing to pay a fine, and then again for starting an altercation with a county sheriff who had accused Cronin of lying to him. While in prison, Cronin got into a fight with a guard who called him a name. He was also assigned to an anger management class in prison. However, just prior to completing the class, Cronin got into another altercation with an inmate who baited him into a fight, was kicked out of the class, and was not allowed to re-take the class.

         Cronin testified about his daily activities. He stated that his wife paid the bills and handled the money, but he could do his own laundry, pick up around the yard and play with his young children. The predominant theme of Cronin's testimony was that he preferred to avoid interacting with people. The ALJ noted that Cronin's right hand was shaking badly during his testimony, and when asked about it, Cronin stated that it was a coping mechanism. Cronin testified that he currently, and in the past, received mental health treatment at a facility called Families, Inc., and was working with a counselor who he believed was helping him. He also testified that his current mental health medication was effective.

         The medical evidence in the record indicates that Cronin saw a consultative examining psychologist in 2011. At that time, Cronin was not getting mental health treatment nor taking any medication. Cronin reported to this doctor that he had anger control problems when he was around too many people. Nonetheless the psychologist found Cronin to be friendly, courteous, and cooperative. Ultimately this clinician found that Cronin had average intellectual functioning and a "mild-to-moderate" mood disorder.

         Cronin next sought medical treatment in October 2012, around the time he filed for benefits. He was diagnosed by Dr. Thomas Baldwin with schizophrenia (in addition to bipolar disorder) and was prescribed medication for those conditions. Because he had filed for benefits, Cronin was interviewed by the social security disability reviewer, who observed that Cronin had no problems with understanding, coherency, concentration or communication. Cronin sought mental health treatment again in May 2013, when he began treatment at Families, Inc. He told Families, Inc., practitioners that he was taking Valium as needed but the record indicates he was not taking the bipolar medication prescribed in October 2012. He reported his bipolar family history, his difficult and abusive childhood, his lack of formal primary education due to parental neglect, and history of substance abuse. He was again prescribed medication, and received therapy at Families, Inc., for the next several months. Ultimately, Cronin did well with both therapy and medication, and in fact did well enough to discontinue treatment in the fall of 2013. However, he eventually became noncompliant with medication, and was ultimately incarcerated for ten months for delivery of illegal substances. Cronin returned to Families, Inc., in early 2016 at the behest of his parole officer who told him to "get back on [his] medications." Treatment notes from Families, Inc., during January 2016 through August 2016 indicate that he attended therapy regularly, and every treatment note after his initial consultation described his attitude as "[a]ttentive, cooperative, and friendly." The notes from June through August further indicate that he was "managing his stress overall fairly well"; that the "meds [were] working well"; and he "denied any recent outbursts." Indeed, as stated, Cronin's testimony at the October 2016 hearing in front of the ALJ indicated that he was currently aided by therapy at Families, Inc., and medication.

         After the October 2016 hearing, the ALJ scheduled Cronin for another consultative mental and intellectual examination, which was conducted in December 2016. The psychologist who examined him, Dr. Hobby, found that Cronin was mostly able to live independently, had young children that he helped care for at home, and was attentive, pleasant, related well, had no problem with thought processes, no perceptual abnormalities and exhibited good emotional control. Cronin's scores on the various IQ and other intelligence tests ranged from 66 to 84 (the 84 score was in perceptual reasoning). The psychologist found that Cronin could concentrate, follow directions, and had good persistence. Dr. Hobby also found that there were discrepancies between Cronin's alleged interpersonal skills and the interpersonal skill level he demonstrated during the interview, which was appropriate. Thus, the consulting psychologist who examined Cronin soon after his successful Families, Inc., therapy and a return to a medication regimen, diagnosed him with borderline intellectual functioning, a learning disorder, and bipolar disorder. Dr. Hobby opined that Cronin could learn simple, semi-skilled work tasks.

         After obtaining the results of the consultative examination, the ALJ issued its written opinion using the "five-step" sequential analysis dictated by 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Cronin had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since his application date in October 2012. At step two, the ALJ found that Cronin had the severe impairment of borderline intellectual functioning, learning delays, schizoaffective disorder, mood disorder, personality disorder, and an anxiety disorder.[2] However, the ALJ found at step three of the familiar framework that Cronin did not meet any of the listings, [3] and specifically mentioned mental disability listings 12.03, 12.04, 12.08 and 12.11. The ALJ found that Cronin did not have two marked limitations in any of the following criteria: understanding, remembering, applying information, interacting with others, concentrating, persisting, maintaining pace, and adapting or managing himself. The ALJ also found that Cronin did not need a highly structured living setting. Without meeting these criteria, Cronin did not meet the listings.

         The ALJ next calculated Cronin's RFC, considering that Cronin had no exertional limitations, but had the following nonexertional limitations: he is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that require only incidental interpersonal contact. The ALJ credited the testimony of the vocational expert who testified at the hearing that someone with Cronin's RFC described above would be able to return to his past relevant work as a material mixer. Accordingly, the ALJ found Cronin was not disabled at step four. While the analysis could have stopped at that point, the ALJ additionally found that Cronin would also not be disabled at step five because his RFC indicated he could perform a wide range of work in the national economy. ...

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