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Morton v. Colvin

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

May 28, 2014





Plaintiff Debora A. Morton has filed this action seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Morton’s claims for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and “insured, ” that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. The last date that a claimant meets the requirements of being insured is commonly referred to as the “date last insured.” Morton met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2012. Tr. 621, 739.[1]

Supplemental security income is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind or other disabled individuals who have little or no income. Insured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant’s eligibility for supplemental security income benefits.

Morton protectively filed her applications for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits on March 10, 2010. Tr. 621. Morton claims that she became disabled on October 8, 2008. Tr. 623. Morton has been diagnosed with numerous impairments, including major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, status post right breast carcinoma, a “thyroid problem, ” left sacrolitis and lumber facet anthropathy, lumber radiculopathy/degenerative disc disease, cardiac issues and prior myocardial infarctions, and drug dependence, in remission. Tr. 623-25. On August 3, 2010, Morton’s applications were initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination. Tr. 723.

On September 2, 2010, Morton requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 730. The ALJ conducted a hearing on July 7, 2011, where Morton was represented by counsel. Tr. 639-94. On September 20, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Morton’s applications. Tr. 621-32. On July 11, 2012, the Appeals Council declined to grant review. Tr. 1. Morton filed a complaint before this Court on August 31, 2012. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and this case became ripe for disposition on March 15, 2013, when Morton filed a reply brief.

Morton appeals the ALJ’s determination on three grounds: (1) the ALJ erred in substituting his lay opinion for that of the vocational expert, (2) the ALJ erred in failing to include Morton’s mental limitations in the residual functional capacity assessment, and (3) the ALJ did not fully consider and/or properly credit all of the relevant medical evidence.[2]

For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

Statement of Relevant Facts

Morton is 57 years of age, has obtained an associate’s degree in nursing, and is able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language. Tr. 760, 766, 924. Morton has past relevant work as a nurse, which is classified as medium, skilled work, although as performed by Morton it was heavy work. Tr. 686.

A. Morton’s Mental Impairments

Morton has suffered from depression “since her 20’s;” however, the first treatment notes contained within the administrative record begin on February 6, 2009 at her first session with Ulla Martz, LCSW. Tr. 906, 921. Morton reported multiple symptoms accompanying her anxiety and depression, including: significant appetite or weight change, insomnia, social isolation, irritability, fatigue, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty controlling her anxiety and worry. Tr. 921. Ms. Martz noted that Morton’s appearance was unremarkable, she was alert and oriented in all spheres, had fair eye contact, an intense affect, and an irritable, depressed, and anxious mood. Id. Ms. Martz also observed that Morton’s motor activity and perception were within normal limits. Id. Morton’s speech was normal, her language was intact, her associations were logical, her memory was intact, and her insight and judgment were good. Id. However, Ms. Martz noted that Morton displayed fearfulness, hopelessness, anhedonia, and suffered from poor concentration. Id.

At this appointment, Morton stated that she had a “good” response to her medications, including Prozac and Wellbutrin. Tr. 923. Finally, Ms. Martz noted that Morton complained that her family stress and cancer treatments were limiting what she and her husband were “able to do and enjoy.” Tr. 925.

At a March 3, 2009 appointment, Morton reiterated her symptoms of anxiety and depression, and noted that her high level of family stress continued. Tr. 920. Ms. Martz noted that Morton was appropriately dressed, was adequately groomed, and was cooperative. Id. Additionally, her perception, insight, cognition, and memory were within normal limits; although Morton’s mood was anxious and her thought process was “distractible, ” her affect was appropriate to content. Id. Morton denied suicidal or homicidal ideations. Id. A follow-up appointment with Ms. Martz on March 17, 2009 revealed almost identical symptoms and mental status findings. Tr. 917.

On April 17, 2009, Morton had an initial intake session with Shanthi Lewis, MD for treatment of her mental impairments. Tr. 1542. Morton presented with complaints of fatigue, decreased appetite, poor sleep, amotivation, increased guilt, increased self-blame, and feelings of hopelessness. Id. Morton reported that while her anxiety had “always been high, ” she had only one previous panic attack. Id. Dr. Lewis noted that Morton had a history of suicidal ideations, and described a previous overdose of Xanax as a suicide attempt. Id. Dr. Lewis observed that Morton had good eye contact, was cooperative, had fluent and coherent speech, had an organized and linear thought process, and had intact associations and calculations. Tr. 1543. However, Morton also had a depressed mood and constricted affect. Id.

Dr. Lewis conducted several objective tests at this appointment, and noted that Morton was alert and oriented, had intact attention and concentration, could recall three out of three words immediately and two out of three words after five minutes, and had intact memory. Tr. 1544. Dr. Lewis diagnosed Morton with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder; he assigned Morton a GAF score of 51-60.[3]

On May 1, 2009, Morton again presented to Dr. Lewis with anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue. Tr. 954. Morton reported diminished interest and pleasure, a diminished ability to think and concentrate, fatigue, indecisiveness, excessive guilt, decreased motivation, and restlessness. Id. Dr. Lewis observed that Morton was casually dressed, cooperative, had appropriate behavior, was anxious with a flat affect, and had impaired recent memory and diminished attention. Id. However, Dr. Lewis believed that her insight, perception, and judgment were within normal limits. Id. Dr. Lewis made similar observations at ...

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