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Lommel v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

August 18, 2016

WENDY LOMMEL, 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 Wendy Lommel seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 12) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17).[1] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s decision that she is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 12) is GRANTED.

         I

         Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1957, has one year of college education, and previously worked as an inventory control clerk, boat repairer, and software engineer. R. at 23, 164. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI on September 20, 2012, alleging disability beginning on August 1, 2010, due to bipolar disorder, anxiety/panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, and agoraphobia. R. at 132-39, 150, 163. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s application initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 51-92, 96-101, 104-16. On October 9, 2014, ALJ O. Price Dodson held a hearing at which Plaintiff pro se and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 28-49. On December 10, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled since the application date of September 20, 2012. R. at 13-27. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff’s request for review on May 6, 2015. R. at 1-6, 11-12, 228-29. The ALJ’s decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).

         On July 8, 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 December 11, 2012, a state agency consultant, Pauline Hightower, Psy.D., using the psychiatric review technique (“PRT”) under 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a, evaluated Plaintiff’s mental impairments under Listings 12.04 and 12.06 relating to affective disorders and anxiety-related disorders (R. at 54-55). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, §§ 12.04, 12.06. Dr. Hightower opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff’s mental impairments caused her to experience (1) mild restriction in activities of daily living; (2) moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 54. Dr. Hightower did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listings. R. at 55. Dr. Hightower thus assessed Plaintiff’s mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) (R. at 56-57) and opined that she was moderately limited in her ability to (1) interact appropriately with the general public; (2) get along with co-workers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes; and to (3) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. R. at 56-57. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 56-57.

         On June 11, 2013, another state agency consultant, D. Walcutt, Ph.D., again used the PRT to evaluate 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 65-66, 75-76, 87-88). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, §§ 12.04, 12.06, 12.09. Dr. Walcutt opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff’s mental impairments caused her to experience (1) mild restriction in activities of daily living; (2) moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) one or two episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 65, 75-76, 87. Dr. Walcutt did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listings. R. at 65, 76, 87. Dr. Walcutt thus assessed Plaintiff’s mental RFC (R. at 67-69, 77-79, 88-90) and opined that she was moderately limited in her ability to (1) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (2) work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; (3) 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; (4) interact appropriately with the general public; (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. R. at 67-68, 77-78, 89-90. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 67-68, 77-79, 89-90.

         B. Hearing Testimony

         1. Plaintiff’s Testimony

         The ALJ reviewed Plaintiff’s testimony in the ALJ’s decision:

[Plaintiff] alleges she is unable to work because of depressive disorders manifested by suicidal thoughts, mood instability, sleep disturbance, low energy, and social withdrawal, and by anxiety-related disorders manifested by panic attacks, irrational fear, and agoraphobia. In her Function Reports, she noted that her mental impairments affect her abilities to remember, complete tasks, follow instructions, concentrate, and get along with others [R. at 162-77, 204-07].
At the hearing, [Plaintiff] testified that she became depressed after she became involved in an abusive relationship. She and her partner then moved to Virginia and acquired an old wooden boat (cruiser), which they restored and began to live in. She testified that she still lives on the boat alone and does all the maintenance. [Plaintiff] stated that her biggest problem continues to be fear of everyone, except for three friends/family members with whom she feels comfortable. She testified that she is uncomfortable around strangers and therefore leaves the boat and marina very infrequently, for trips to the grocery store about 3 to 4 times a month. Otherwise, she stated, she has little motivation for activity and just ...

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