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Schlossnagle v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 1, 2016

DANIEL W. SCHLOSSNAGLE, [1] Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING PLAINTIFF’S ALTERNATIVE MOTION FOR REMAND

          Thomas M. DiGirolamo United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Daniel W. Schlossnagle (or Schlosnagle) seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 15) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16).[2] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s decision that he is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 15) is GRANTED.

         I

         Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1977, has one year of college education, and previously worked as a paratrooper, assembler at a container company, housekeeping supervisor, and security guard/officer. R. at 38, 201, 206. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on April 25, 2011, alleging disability beginning on October 15, 2008, due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), back trauma, depression, anxiety, and brain injury. R. at 153-60, 201, 205. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s application initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 73-95. On October 22, 2013, ALJ Brian P. Kilbane held a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 44-72. On November 27, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the alleged onset date of disability of October 15, 2008, through the date of the decision. R. at 18-43. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff’s request for review on February 4, 2015. R. at 1-5, 13-17. The ALJ’s decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).

         On April 1, 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner’s decision. Upon the parties’ consent, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case subsequently was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.

         II

         Summary of Evidence

         A. State Agency Medical Consultants

         On September 13, 2011, a state agency consultant, F. Ewell, Ph.D., using the psychiatric review technique (“PRT”) under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a, evaluated Plaintiff’s mental impairments under Listings 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09 relating to affective disorders, anxiety-related disorders, and substance addiction disorders (R. at 368-81). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, §§ 12.04, 12.06, 12.09. Dr. Ewell opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff’s mental impairments of depressive disorder not otherwise specified, PTSD, and alcohol dependence caused him to experience (1) mild restriction in activities of daily living; (2) mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) one or two repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 371-78. Dr. Ewell noted Plaintiff’s diagnosis at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on April 25, 2011, of depressive disorder not otherwise specified, alcohol dependence in full remission, and a GAF score of 60.[3] R. at 272-73, 380. Dr. Ewell did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listings. R. at 379. Dr. Ewell thus assessed Plaintiff’s mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) (R. at 364-67) and opined that he was moderately limited in his ability to (1) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (2) perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances; (3) work in coordination with or proximity to others without being distracted by them; (4) complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; (5) get along with co-workers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes; and to (6) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 364-65. Dr. Ewell explained that Plaintiff’s memory and understanding were adequate, his concentration and persistence were limited by psychological symptoms, he was “[s]omewhat withdrawn from others” in his social functioning, and he was independent with many tasks, so he maintained the ability to perform tasks from a mental health standpoint. R. at 366.

         On June 12, 2012, another state agency consultant, Louis Perrott, Ph.D., again used the PRT to evaluate Plaintiff’s mental impairments under Listings 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09. R. at 78-79. Dr. Perrott opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff’s mental impairments caused him to experience (1) mild restriction in activities of daily living; (2) mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 78. Dr. Perrott did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listings. R. at 79. Dr. Perrott thus assessed Plaintiff’s mental RFC (R. at 80-82) and opined that he was moderately limited in his ability to (1) carry out detailed instructions; (2) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (3) perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances; (4) work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; (5) complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; (6) interact appropriately with the general public; and to (7) get along with co-workers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. R. at 80-81. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 80-81. Dr. Perrott found that Plaintiff (1) would be able to maintain adequate concentration and attention for at least two-hour intervals with normal breaks with simple, one- to three-step commands and (2) would be able to work in an environment with limited interaction with the public and co-workers. R. at 81. Dr. Perrott thus opined:

Although [Plaintiff] would have some limitations due to his mental conditions, the records and [activities of daily living] show that he would still be able to follow simple directions, complete simple tasks, and complete an average work day/week.
. . . .
[Plaintiff’s] documented symptom-related limitations do not prevent him from engaging in routine, competitive employment which does not necessitate extensive social interaction.

R. at 81.

         B. Hearing Testimony

         1. Plaintiff’s Testimony

         The ALJ reviewed Plaintiff’s testimony in his decision:

[Plaintiff] testified that he last worked as a security officer, but stopped in 2010 due to his anxiety and back problems; he had not attempted to work in the past 3 years; and he had a service-connected parachuting injury in the Army in 1998, during which he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He noted that he was awarded partial disability from the military because of this accident, from which he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe depression, anger, anxiety, and alcohol dependence, and he reported having 6 psychiatric hospitalizations in the past. [Plaintiff] lived a quarter of a mile from his parents and was living with his girlfriend, who was currently moving out; he could cook his own meals and tried to care for himself and his home; but if he needed help with such tasks as lifting items or mowing, he asked for help. He admitted to doing laundry or maintenance without help, but said that he did not [do?] social activities; on a typical day, he looked after his house, fixed meals, and went to treatment visits for his impairments; he saw a counselor in the past; and he had difficulty focusing, which prevented him from being able to complete community college classes. [Plaintiff] testified that he typically paced, spent a lot of time cooking, and spent time with his dog during the day; he took medication for insomnia; his hobbies included basic gardening and raising chickens; he could no longer drive, due to anxiety; and he left one of his past jobs because he could not be around others. Last, he alleged that it took him longer to complete tasks; he did not go anywhere, besides to doctors’ appointments; there were only a few older farmers with whom he felt comfortable; and though he was initially awarded disability through the military in 2001, he said that his conditions had worsened since then.
In his function report, [Plaintiff] wrote that he had problems with thinking, problem solving, and intense nervousness; he could prepare full meals daily over several hours; and he did such chores as cleaning, laundry, small house repairs, and ironing, which took all day and did not require encouragement or help. He denied needing reminders to do personal care tasks or to take his medications; he went outside daily, could go out alone, and could drive; he went shopping in stores once or twice monthly for food and cleaning supplies; his hobbies included making art and doing housework; he did not spend time with others; and he sometimes fished. [Plaintiff] wrote that he tended not to be social and kept to himself; he could only walk a mile before needing to stretch; he lost interest in things very quickly; he did not finish what he started; he had difficulty getting along with authority figures; and he could not handle stress or changes in routine ...

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