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Barbiero v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 13, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This case is an appeal from a denial of Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff asserts multiple errors by the Administrative Law Judge who decided her case. The matter was referred to a Magistrate Judge, who issued a Report and Recommendation upholding the ALJ's decision. I adopt that thorough and reasoned R & R in all respects but one. Because I conclude that the ALJ ignored or discounted probative evidence that supported Plaintiff's claim without adequately explaining her reasons for doing so, I will remand for further consideration.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff Linda Barbiero filed for disability benefits in 2013, claiming that she was disabled as of June 1, 2012 due to clinical depression, anxiety, stress, short-term memory loss, lack of focus, and chronic aches and pains. Barbiero's initial application was denied. A hearing was held before an ALJ who likewise concluded that Barbiero was not disabled. The ALJ's decision was affirmed by the Social Security Appeals Council, setting the stage for this appeal.

         The Social Security Administration reviews applications for disability insurance benefits using a five-step inquiry. The finder of fact must determine, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) has a severe medical impairment; (3) has an impairment that the Commissioner has found to presumptively preclude gainful activity; (4) can return to previous employment despite their impairment; or (5) has the “residual functional capacity” to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Here, the ALJ resolved Barbiero's case at Step 5, concluding that Barbiero was unable to return to her previous occupation as a property manager and billing clerk, but could perform “light work, ” limited to “routine repetitive tasks, infrequent changes in the work setting, and occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the public.” R. at 25.

         In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ placed “great weight” on the opinion of Dr. Ronald Langberg, Ph.D., who conducted a single consultative examination of Barbiero on June 3, 2013, at the behest of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination. R. at 30-31. In his examination report, Langberg described Barbiero as “well-nourished, appropriately dressed and groomed, [and] . . . fully cooperative and pleasant.” R. at 298. He noted that her “speech was normal in rate, rhythm, and volume, ” that she “did not appear to be responding to internal stimuli, ” that her “affective expression was moderately depressed, ” and that her “thinking was logical, goal-directed, and without loosening of associations.” R. at 299. Langberg identified Barbiero's medical conditions as “major depression, recurrent, moderate, ” “anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified, ” and “opioid dependence on agonist therapy.” R. at 301. Based on Barbiero's affect during the consultation and her performance on memory tests, Langberg concluded that Barbiero's conditions would cause “moderate limitations in her capacity to relate to coworkers, employers, and the general public due to anxiety, ” and “moderate limitations in her capacity to sustain worklike-related activities.” R. at 301-02. Consistent with this assessment, Langberg assigned Barbiero a GAF score of 60.[1] R. at 301.

         The ALJ also placed “great weight” on the June 19, 2013, “Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment” of Dr. Elizabeth Hoffman, Ph.D. R. at 30-31. Hoffman, a psychological consultant with the Disability Determination Bureau, did not personally examine Barbiero. Instead, she relied on Langberg's analysis to find that, “[d]espite [Barbiero's] limitations, she is able to meet the basic mental demands of simple routine work on a sustained basis.”[2] R. at 72. According to the ALJ, Langberg and Hoffman's assessment was “consistent with the evidence as a whole, ” which showed that Barbiero's “residual symptoms related to her depression and anxiety . . . have not caused any work preclusive limitation.” R. at 31.

         By contrast, the ALJ found that the assessment of Dale Myrtetus, LCSW, was “not consistent with the evidence in its entirety” and therefore entitled to “little weight.” R. at 31. Myrtetus, a licensed therapist who had seen Barbiero roughly twice a month since 2009, [3]submitted a “Mental Medical Source Statement” on December 23, 2014, in which she opined that Barbiero's impairments would make it impossible for her to hold a job. R. at 455. Unlike Langberg and Hoffman, Myrtetus characterized Barbiero's depression and anxiety as “severe, ” and concluded that “even with proper medication, ” Barbiero would be “unable to maintain attention for 2 hours without major distractibility.” R. at 455-57. Myrtetus attributed Barbiero's condition, at least in part, to “dramatic emergencies of adult daughter, ” a 29 year-old mother of two, whose struggles with untreated bipolar disorder and methamphetamine addiction left Barbiero “constantly worried and anticipating next [sic] catastrophe.” R. at 457. While noting that Barbiero had been assigned a GAF score of 60 in the past year, Myrtetus put her GAF score as of December 2014 at 45.[4] R. at 455. According to Myrtetus, Barbiero's condition would cause her to miss at least four days of work per month. R. at 459.

         Of minimal significance to the ALJ's decision, but of central relevance to this appeal, are the records of Dr. Martha Murry, M.D., a psychiatrist to whom Myrtetus referred Barbiero. Murry treated Barbiero from August 2013 until at least March 2014.[5] She did not render an opinion on Barbiero's residual functional capacity, but did create treatment notes, five of which are contained in the record. Like Langberg, Murry consistently found that Barbiero was appropriately groomed, spoke at a normal rate and volume, and exhibited no signs of psychosis. Unlike Langberg, however, she also observed that, from August through February, Barbiero's mood was “dysphoric”; her affect “constricted, ” “downcast, ” and “distracted”; her thinking “tangential, ” or “circumstantial”; her appearance “anxious” or “very anxious”; and her insight “poor” or “fair.” R. at 415-22. Based on these observations, Murry diagnosed Barbiero with “major depression, recurrent, severe, ” “anxiety disorder, other unspecified, ” and “ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Presentation.” R. at 418.

         Murry's treatment notes show that Barbiero's condition fluctuated over time. For instance, in January Barbiero reported that her depression “was worse, ” and that “this time of yr, (Jan) she always gets down.” Id. And in February, Barbiero said that she had “highs and lows, and her lows are really bad.” R. at 420. At this time, Barbiero described her focus as “very low, worse than it use to be, ” [sic] and said that she “[couldn't] seem to get out of bed often in the AM.” Id. By March, however, Barbiero was feeling considerably better, an improvement that she attributed to the end of winter. According to Murry's treatment note from that month, Barbiero still exhibited “signs of mild anxiety” and “some signs of attentional difficulties, ” but her “[m]ental status [had] no gross abnormalities, ” and her mood was “euthymic with no signs of depression or manic process.” R. at 418. Nevertheless, Murry left undisturbed her diagnoses of anxiety disorder, ADHD, and severe depression.

         II. STANDARD

         My review is limited to determining whether “substantial evidence” supports the ALJ's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “‘Substantial evidence, ' . . . is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011). “A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the Commissioner ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence.” Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000). “Where there is conflicting probative evidence in the record, we recognize a particularly acute need for an explanation of the reasoning behind the ALJ's conclusions, and will vacate or remand a case where such an explanation is not provided.” Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 42 (3d Cir. 2001).


         I find that the ALJ's reasoning was flawed both because she (1) failed to reasonably explain why Myrtetus's opinion was inconsistent with the record as a whole, and (2) failed to discuss credible medical evidence that corroborated Myrtetus's assessment and undermined that of Langberg and Hoffman. In light of these shortcomings, which I discuss in turn below, I find that the ALJ's decision to favor Langberg and ...

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