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Bartley v. Commissioner of Social Security

December 11, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David Stewart Cercone United States District Judge

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Plaintiff Pamela Bartley brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383 (c)(3), for review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act") for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1381f. As is the customary practice in the Western District of Pennsylvania, the parties have submitted cross-motions for summary judgment and the record developed at the administrative proceedings.

After careful consideration of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), the briefs and reply briefs of the parties, and the entire record, the Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and therefore will deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment.


Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB in May 13, 2005, and for SSI in June 6, 2005, alleging disability as of December 23, 2004, due to back injury, rheumatoid arthritis, numbness, chronic fatigue, thoracic and lumbar subluxation, peptic ulcer, depression, and anxiety. (R. 18, 93, 573, 587). The state agency denied her claim on August 18, 2005. (R. 581-86). Plaintiff then requested a hearing and a hearing was held before ALJ Raymond J. Zadzilko on July 19, 2006, during which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and an impartial vocational expert testified. (R. 591-624). On September 22, 2006, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 15-31). On May 23, 2007, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (R. 6-10), and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff then filed her complaint and appeal in this Court on July 25, 2007. On February 26, 2008, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment. On April 15, 2008, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment.


Plaintiff concedes that the ALJ's findings with respect to her physical impairments are supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the statement of the case set forth here will deal only with Plaintiff's mental health impairments. On June 26, 2004, Plaintiff slipped and fell while working as a nurses aide and injured her shoulders, back, head, and neck. (R. 83, 566, 602-3). She continued to work until December 23, 2004, when she claimed her disability began.

(R.68, 83, 566, 598-9, 602).

On February 3, 2005, Dr. Hong Shi, M.D., Ph.D., a psychiatrist, reported that Plaintiff had a history of depression. (R.252). On June 6, 2005, a claims representative of the SSA reported that Plaintiff was neat, clean, cooperative, and talkative, and had no difficulty concentrating, reading, understanding, writing, talking, answering, or communicating coherently during the interview (R. 94-5). On the same day, Plaintiff filled out a questionnaire and reported that she provided care to her children, grandchildren, and mother by driving them to stores, the pharmacy, friends' houses, school, and doctors; lived in an apartment with a male friend or with her mother; occasionally cooked, performed some housework with breaks, went grocery shopping, and cleaned the house with breaks; did not require assistance with personal care or reminders about personal needs; was not dependent on others for care; did not have problems getting along with family, friends, and neighbors; responded well to criticism; got along well with people of authority; plan her days; was able to make her own decisions; start and complete projects; did not have problems understanding and carrying out instructions or making decisions; and did not need help taking her medications. (R.101-60).

On June 14, 2005, Plaintiff's psychologist, Dr. Phyllis R. Brentzel, Psy. D., completed a questionnaire and medical source statement. (R.352-58). Brentzel indicated that she saw plaintiff weekly for major depressive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. (R.352). Plaintiff's speech was described as rapid, loud, and pressured and her mood was described as most often sad and frustrated. (R.353). Plaintiff was described as being appropriate and oriented to time, place, and person. Id. Brentzel reported that Plaintiff had missed appointments because she couldn't keep track of what day it was, but could keep herself on task and focused through the use of calendars, lists, and phone reminders Id. She also reported that Plaintiff had expressed suicidal thoughts, but denied that she would ever attempt suicide. Id. She also reported that Plaintiff sometimes had panic attacks in public. (R. 354). Brentzel reported that Plaintiff knows how to behave socially and is capable of managing benefits on her own behalf. Id. Further, Brentzel opined that Plaintiff's mental condition affected her ability to maintain concentration, persistence, or pace because, as her anxiety increased, she experienced difficulties remaining on task, staying focused, and maintaining motivation. (R. 355).

In her medical source statement, Brentzel noted that Plaintiff had marked limitations in remembering, understanding and carrying out detailed instructions. She also noted that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in understanding, remembering and carrying out short, simple instructions, and making judgments on simple work-related decisions. (R. 357). Brentzel also reported that Plaintiff was only slightly limited in her ability to interact appropriately with the public, with supervisors and co-workers, respond appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting, and to respond appropriately to charges in a routine work setting. Id.

During evaluations by Dr. Shi in July 2005 and August 2005, Shi reported that Plaintiff was alert and oriented, and her mood was "fine." (R. 384, 390). On August 11, 2005, Dr. Susan Baxter Tarter, Ph.D., a state agency psychological consultant, reviewed plaintiff's records and concluded the Plaintiff suffered from major depressive disorder, PTSD, and a history of alcohol abuse. (R. 359-69). Tarter concluded that these issues resulted in mild restrictions in Plaintiff's activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and no episodes of decompensation. (R. 369). With regard to Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity, Tartar found that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in her ability to carry out detailed instructions and in the ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods of time. (R. 372-73). She found that Plaintiff was not significantly limited in any other category. (R. 372-73). During follow-up visits with Dr. Shi in November 2005 and February 2006, it was reported that Plaintiff's mood was "fine," and that she was alert and oriented. (R. 386, 399).

On April 30, 2006, Dr. Brentzel completed a second medical source statement. (R. 415-17). Brentzel noted that Plaintiff had slight restrictions in her ability to understand and remember, short simple instructions; carry out short simple instructions, and make judgments on simple work-related decisions. (R. 416). Brentzel further reported that Plaintiff had moderate difficulty in her ability to understand, remember and carry out detailed instructions; interact appropriately with the public supervisors, and co-workers; and respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting. Id. Finally, Brentzel reported that Plaintiff had marked limitations in her ability to respond appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting. Id. Dr. Brentzel wrote a letter to accompany her assessment. (R. 418-19). (R.116-123.). Brentzel wrote "If an employer would hire her, her bouts with depression and taking care of her chaotic family are likely to interfere with arriving at work on time or even getting to work at all. Her unruly temper could easily offend customers and could be a factor in her ability to maintain employment." (R. 419).

On May 22, 2006, Joel Last, M.D., a psychiatrist, drafted a letter to Plaintiff's attorney stating that he had treated Plaintiff on four occasions. (R. 543-45). During these visits, Plaintiff reported a history of depression, anxiety, and past alcohol abuse. (R. 543). On January 10, 2006, Plaintiff indicated that she had been looking for a job, but had not found one. (R. 544). She further reported that she was haunted by her father's suicide. Id. On March 21, 2006, Dr. Last prescribed Lexapro, Xanax, Neurontin, and Klonopin. Id. On May 2, 2006, Plaintiff reported to Last that she was on welfare, was unable to obtain a job, and was denying suicidal ideation. Id. Dr. Last diagnosed Plaintiff with major depression, chronic, moderate and PTSD. (R. 545). He further opined that Plaintiff had a current GAF score of 45 and a highest ...

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