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Walker-Earnest v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 18, 2017

Clara Frances Walker-Earnest, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Eric J. Markovich, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Clara Frances Walker-Earnest (“Walker-Earnest”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Walker-Earnest raises one issue on appeal: Whether the ALJ committed harmful error by finding that Walker-Earnest was not disabled where application of the agency's medical-vocational guidelines would direct a finding of disability. (Doc. 14). The Commissioner concedes that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 20 at 1). Thus, the only issue before the Court is whether this case should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, or for further administrative proceedings.

         Before the Court are Walker-Earnest's Opening Brief, Defendant's Response, and Walker-Earnest's Reply. (Docs. 14, 20, & 21). The United States Magistrate Judge has received the written consent of both parties and presides over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that this matter should be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings.

         I. Procedural History

         Walker-Earnest filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on August 25, 2012. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 32, 78). Walker-Earnest alleged disability beginning January 5, 2012 based on hepatitis C, degenerative disc disease in the cervical and lumbar spine, arthritis, PTSD, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts, pain, stiffness, extreme fatigue, and balance issues. (AR 78-79). Walker-Earnest's application was denied upon initial review (AR 77) and on reconsideration (AR 93). A hearing was held on December 16, 2014 (AR 48), after which ALJ Larry Johnson found, at Step Four, that Walker-Earnest was not disabled because she was able to perform her PRW as computer data entry (AR 41-42). On July 29, 2016 the Appeals Council denied Walker-Earnest's request to review the ALJ's decision. (AR 1).

         Walker-Earnest's date last insured (“DLI”) for DIB purposes is December 31, 2016. (AR 78). Thus, in order to be eligible for benefits, Walker-Earnest must prove that she was disabled during the time period of her alleged onset date (“AOD”) of January 5, 2012 and her DLI of December 31, 2016.

         II. Factual History[1]

         Walker-Earnest was born on December 3, 1953, making her 58 at the AOD of her disability. (AR 78). Walker-Earnest earned a G.E.D. and a bachelor's degree. (AR 173). She worked for 18 years doing computer data entry for the county government. (AR 174, 184).

         A. Medical Testimony

         On February 24, 2013 Walker-Earnest saw Dr. Jeri Hassman for a physical medicine consultation. (AR 452). Walker-Earnest reported that she left her job because she had enough points to retire, plus she was becoming less sharp and having mid and low back pain, pain down her right upper extremity, and pain down her right leg. (AR 452). Walker-Earnest also stated that she had PTSD from a very bad childhood and a very aggressive supervisor. Dr. Hassman documented an unremarkable physical exam of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, mild generalized weakness of both upper extremities, mild stiffness with ambulation, and multiple psychiatric conditions including PTSD, anxiety, and suicidal and homicidal thoughts. (AR 455). Dr. Hassman also completed a Medical Source Statement and opined that Walker-Earnest's conditions would not impose limitations for 12 months. (AR 456).

         On March 19, 2013 Walker-Earnest saw Dr. Andrew Jones for a psychological evaluation. (AR 463). Walker-Earnest stated that she applied for disability because of anxiety, depression, and back pain, and that her last job ended because she retired. Dr. Jones noted that Walker-Earnest had low energy, dysphoric mood, and a flat affect, and scored 30 out of 30 on the Mini Mental State Exam. (AR 464). He diagnosed PTSD; major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe; back pain; hepatitis C; and neck pain. (AR 465). Dr. Jones also completed a Medical Source Statement and opined that Walker-Earnest's condition would impose limitations for 12 months. (AR 466). He found she had no limitations in understanding and memory, but that she was most likely moderately limited in her ability to complete a normal workday without interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms. Dr. Jones also stated that Walker-Earnest was moderately limited in her ability to respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors and in her ability to get along with coworkers.

         A letter dated November 6, 2013 from Tides of Change Center of Wellness states that Walker-Earnest had been a client since January 2012 and that she continued to suffer from anxiety and depression and had panic attacks on a regular basis. (AR 468).

         On November 25, 2013 nurse practitioner Kathleen Oldfather completed a Medical Assessment of the Patient's Ability to Perform Work Related Activity form. (AR 469). Oldfather opined that Walker-Earnest had severe impairments in the following areas: ability to relate to other people, degree of restriction of daily activities, deterioration of personal habits, constriction of interests, understand, carry out, and remember instructions, respond appropriately to supervision and co-workers, respond to customary work pressures, perform complex tasks, repetitive tasks, and varied tasks, and complete a normal workday/workweek without interruption from psychologically-based symptoms. (AR 469-70). Oldfather also opined that Walker-Earnest had a moderately severe impairment in her ability to perform simple tasks, and stated that her limitations would last for 12 months or longer. (AR 470).

         A health record dated November 6, 2014 from Dr. Sullivan and nurse practitioner Oldfather lists Walker-Earnest's active problems as: dissociative personality disorder, interpersonal problems, major depressive affective disorder recurrent episode, panic disorder, unspecified personality disorder, bipolar I disorder, and borderline personality disorder. (AR 548).

         A letter dated November 23, 2014 from Twila R. Christman, LCSW, states that Walker-Earnest has been a client since January 2012 and suffers from anxiety and depression. (AR 547). Christman stated that Walker-Earnest continued to deal with her psychiatric issues and was making progress, but would continue to need treatment for an extended period of time.

         On December 8, 2014 Dr. William Sullivan completed a Medical Assessment of the Patient's Ability to Perform Work Related Activity form. (AR 583). He found Walker-Earnest had mild impairment in the following areas: ability to understand, carry out, and remember instructions, and ability to perform simple tasks. (AR 583-84). He also found moderate impairment in the following areas: ability to relate to other people, restriction of daily activities, and ability to perform complex tasks, repetitive tasks, and varied tasks. He also found she had moderately severe impairment in the following areas: deterioration in personal habits, constriction of interests, ability to respond appropriately to supervision and co-workers, and ability to complete a normal workday/workweek without interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms. Dr. Sullivan further found that Walker-Earnest was severely impaired in her ability to respond to customary work pressures, and stated that her limitations would last for 12 months or longer.

         On December 15, 2014 Dr. Caryl S. Brailsford-Gorman completed a Pain Functional Capacity (RFC) Questionnaire. (AR 585). She reported that Walker-Earnest had moderately severe pain, defined as “pain seriously affects ability to function.” As to whether the degree of pain could reasonably be expected to result from clinical or diagnostic findings, Dr. Brailsford-Gorman did not check “yes” or “no, ” but wrote “probably with anxiety overly amplicating [illegible].” She further opined that Walker-Earnest's pain was frequently severe enough to interfere with her attention and concentration, and that based on her subjective complaints and MRI findings, Walker-Earnest frequently experienced deficiencies of concentration, persistence, or pace. (AR 585-86).

         Dr. Brailsford-Gorman also completed a Medical Assessment of Ability to Perform Work Related Physical Activities form. (AR 587). She noted that based on Walker-Earnest's subjective complaints, she had the following exertional limitations: occasionally and frequently lift less than 10 pounds, stand/walk less than 2 hours, sit less than 6 hours, and must alternate sitting with standing every 15 minutes. Dr. Brailsford-Gorman also reported that Walker-Earnest had no postural or environmental limitations, and was limited to occasionally using both hands for handling, fine manipulation, feeling, and reaching. (AR 588-89). Dr. Brailsford-Gorman stated that these limitations were supported by Walker-Earnest's report of her activities, and the MRIs of her cervical and lumbar spine. (AR 589).

         B. State Agency Findings

         On March 27, 2013 DDS examiner Victoria Wall made an initial determination that Walker-Earnest was not disabled. (AR 77). Wall noted that a finding about capacity for PRW was not made, but that “this information is not material because all potentially applicable Medical-Vocational guidelines would direct a finding of ‘not disabled' given the individual's age, education, and RFC. Therefore, the individual can adjust to other work.” (AR 90). Wall further opined that Walker-Earnest could perform work where interpersonal contact was incidental (such as assembly work), where “tasks should be no more complex than those learned and performed by rote, with few variables and little judgment, and supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete. This constitutes unskilled work.” (AR 91). Wall further noted that Walker-Earnest had no physical restrictions, that she could not perform her PRW and the skills did not transfer, and that there were other sedentary jobs that did not exceed her functional assessment.

         Dr. Howard Atkins completed a psychiatric review and opined that Walker-Earnest's mental impairments were severe. (AR 86). He found that Walker-Earnest had mild restrictions in ADL, moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and no repeated episodes of decompensation. (AR 86-87). Dr. Atkins opined that Walker-Earnest had no limitations in understanding and memory but did have sustained concentration and pace limitations. (AR 89). Specifically, she was moderately limited in her ability to carry out detailed instructions, maintain attention and concentration for extended periods, and complete a normal workday and workweek without interruption from psychologically based symptoms. Dr. Atkins also found that Walker-Earnest was moderately limited in her ability to interact with the general public, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, get along with coworkers or peers, and maintain socially appropriate behavior. (AR 89-90). Dr. Atkins concluded that Walker-Earnest retained the capacity to understand, remember, and carry out detailed and complex instructions, relate appropriately to coworkers, supervisors, and the general public on a brief and superficial basis, utilize reasonable judgment in a work setting, and sustain the level of attention and concentration necessary to complete a routine workday without significant interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms. (AR 90).

         On reconsideration, Walker-Earnest was again found not disabled on September 6, 2013. (AR 93). DDS examiner Stephen Dellinger again noted that a finding about Walker-Earnest's capacity to perform her PRW was not made, but that she could adjust to other work. (AR 107). Dellinger opined that Walker-Earnest was not limited to unskilled work, and that she could perform semi-skilled work where interpersonal contact was routine but superficial (such as grocery checker), where tasks would be no more complex than those learned by experience, and where little supervision was required for routine tasks but detailed supervision was required for non-routine tasks. (AR 108-09). Dellinger further noted that Walker-Earnest could not perform her PRW and that the skills did not transfer, but that there were other sedentary, unskilled jobs she could perform. (AR 109). Dr. Jerry Henderson reaffirmed Dr. Atkins' psychiatric assessment (AR 104, 106-07).

         C. Plaintiff's Testimony

         On a Disability Report dated October 19, 2012 Walker-Earnest reported that her last job was doing computer data entry work for the government. (AR 174). She spent 7.5 hours of the workday sitting, walking, and standing, and 8 hours writing, typing, or handling small objects. She also spent 25% of her time supervising one other person. On a Work History Report, Walker-Earnest stated that she spent 1 hour per day supervising one other person. (AR 185). On both forms she reported that her job required technical knowledge and skills, writing and completing reports, and that she used machines, tools, or equipment. (AR 174, 185).

         D. ALJ&# ...


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