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Bradley v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 19, 2019

Laura Bradley, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Laura Bradley filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security. (Doc. 1.) Before the Court are Bradley's opening brief, the Commissioner's response brief, and Bradley's reply brief. (Docs. 21, 24, 25.) For the following reasons, the Court will remand for an immediate award of benefits.


         I. Procedural History

         Bradley applied for disability insurance benefits on December 9, 2015, claiming a disability onset date of February 1, 2014. AR 103-04.[1] Bradley later amended her alleged onset date to October 8, 2014. AR 310. Her application was denied on May 13, 2016, and again on reconsideration on December 1, 2016. AR 144, 149. On March 9, 2017, Bradley requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). AR 157. At the hearing, held on August 27, 2018, Bradley testified about her medical conditions and past work, and a Vocational Expert (“VE”) testified about which jobs a hypothetical person with Bradley's characteristics can perform. AR 29-55. On September 13, 2018, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Bradley not disabled and denying benefits. AR 7-23. On October 29, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review. AR 1-3. Bradley now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision denying benefits. (Doc. 1.)

         II. Factual Background

         A. Bradley's Personal History and Medical Conditions

         Bradley has a history of scoliosis, fibromyalgia, acid reflux disease, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and alcohol-substance addiction disorder. See AR 239, 250, 436. She has a history of suicidal ideations and has attempted suicide on several occasions, the most recent attempt occurring in September 2015 by drug overdose. AR 344. Bradley has had several traumatic experiences throughout her adult life: her second husband committed suicide; her third husband died of a heart attack on their honeymoon; and she was drugged and gangraped on video by her boyfriend and his friends while on a trip in Mexico. AR 738.

         Bradley worked in the medical field until 2012. AR 267. She was a staff nurse from 1999 to 2006, a supervising nurse from 2007 to August 2009, and a hospital administrator from December 2009 to March 2012. AR 267. In these positions, Bradley worked extensive hours, ranging from 8 to 16 hours per shift, almost all of which she spent standing and walking. AR 268-70. Bradley estimated that she saw between four and five hundred people die, which has had a negative effect on her mental condition. AR 74. She quit working due to her conditions. AR 239.

         B. Medical-Opinion Evidence

         On February 8, 2016, treating physician Dr. Gail McDonald completed a physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment. Dr. McDonald opined, among other things, that Bradley can stand for two hours or less per eight-hour workday, walk less than two blocks before needing to rest, occasionally lift and carry a maximum of 20 pounds, and never lift and carry more than 20 pounds. AR 611. Dr. McDonald qualified her checkbox opinions in the narrative portion of the form: “I don't see [Bradley] regularly so it's hard for me to be definite.” AR 611.

         On November 10, 2016, examining physician Dr. Jeri Hassman saw Bradley in connection with her application for benefits. AR 927-30. The physical examination of Bradley was unremarkable, save for “an obvious scoliosis” which did not prevent Bradley from reaching her fingertips to ankle level without complaint. AR 929. Dr. Hassman diagnosed Bradley with “[a]llegation[s] of fibromyalgia, ” “[h]istory of scoliosis, ” and “[h]istory of depression and suicide attempts.” AR 930. Dr. Hassman opined that none of Bradley's conditions would cause any limitations for 12 continuous months. AR 930.

         At the reconsideration level, Dr. Jon Nordlicht opined whether Bradley has any somatic impairments. AR 131. Dr. Nordlicht noted that the consultative examination by Dr. Hassman “was essentially normal” and that Bradley's “x-rays show minimal findings.” AR 131. Dr. Nordlicht thus agreed that Bradley has no somatic impairments. AR 131.

         III. Hearing

         At her hearing, Bradley testified that she is incapable of her past work as a registered nurse because she cannot stand for even half of a workday. AR 43-44. She testified that she has scoliosis, which causes back pain. AR 38-39. She testified that she can lift 30 pounds but not carry that weight even a short distance. AR 37-38, 44. She reported that, for a three-month period in which her daughter was in rehab, she was solely responsible for taking care of her granddaughter, the household pets, and the home. AR 39-40. She stated that she experienced increased stress during that period. AR 47. After her daughter returned and started working, Bradley began watching her granddaughter from approximately 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. AR 40-41.

         Regarding her mental symptoms, Bradley reported that she still struggles with depression, although it is controlled with medication and she no longer has suicidal ideations. AR 45-46.She testified that she experiences “seasonal depression” approximately two times per year, near the anniversaries of her husbands' deaths. AR 46- 47. She reported that these bouts of depression last approximately one month. AR 47. She further reported that her anxiety becomes so bad at times that she cannot leave the house. AR 48-49.

         The VE classified Bradley's hospital-administrator job as light work and Bradley's nursing job as medium work, but opined that Bradley actually performed both as light work. AR 50. The ALJ asked the VE about a hypothetical claimant with Bradley's age, education, and work history who could perform medium work with the following mental limitations: the claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple two-step tasks; maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for up to four hours with customary work breaks; adapt to simple and routine changes, travel, and respond to hazards; and work in an environment requiring up to frequent (as opposed to constant) superficial interaction with the public and coworkers. AR 51. The VE testified that the hypothetical claimant could not perform Bradley's past work. AR 51. According to the VE, however, the hypothetical claimant could perform other unskilled medium work in the national economy, including hand packager, laboratory-equipment cleaner, and linen clerk. AR 51-52.

         IV. ALJ Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. AR 11-23. At step one, the ALJ found that Bradley was not engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” AR 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Bradley has four “severe” impairments: anxiety disorder, affective disorder, alcohol-substance addiction disorder, and personality disorder. AR 12. The ALJ found that Bradley's fibromyalgia and scoliosis are “non-severe” physical impairments. AR 12-14. At step three, the ALJ found that Bradley does not have an ...

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