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Brooks v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

September 25, 2019

KRYSTAL M. BROOKS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM M. CONLEY DISTRICT JUDGE

         Claimant Krystal M. Brooks seeks judicial review of a final decision of defendant Andrew M. Saul, the Commissioner of Social Security, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which denied her application for disability and supplemental security income. On appeal, Brooks argues that the ALJ failed to properly: (1) weigh medical opinion evidence; and (2) evaluate her testimony. She subsequently requested remand for a new hearing because the ALJ was not constitutionally appointed at the time of the decision. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         In 2014, Brooks filed claims for disability and supplemental security income, alleging an onset date of February 1, 2014. After her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration, Brooks requested a hearing on June 16, 2015. On April 4, 2017, Brooks appeared before ALJ Debra Meachum. ALJ Meachum concluded that Brooks was not disabled in a decision dated April 20, 2017. (AR 26.)

         A. Medical Report and Reports

         Brooks’ treating psychiatrist, Meredith Holbrook, wrote a letter on April 15, 2014, which identified four diagnoses: (1) major depression, recurrent; (2) chronic PTSD; (3) generalized anxiety disorder; and (4) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, all of which impacted “mood, cognition, (attentional and concentration functions), ability to tolerate stress, ability to relate in social situations, energy and motivation.” (AR 298.) Holbrook reported that Brooks was “overwhelmed by the prospect of working at this time” and that she would “likely . . . be in a place to work in the next year.” (Id.)

         Dr. Holbrook submitted an additional letter on September 9, 2014, which basically laid out her diagnoses and stated that claimant was “being seen on a monthly basis and [wa]s compliant with her appointments.” (AR 367.) That same day, her psychotherapist, Linda Renn, MS, CISW, wrote a brief letter detailing that “Brooks is seen for psychotherapy twice a month for ADHD; Generalized anxiety disorder; major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe without psychotic behavior and post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic.” (AR 461.)

         Dr. Holbrook wrote another letter on Brooks’ behalf on May 6, 2015, explaining that (1) Brooks’ “disorder[s] affect[] mood, cognition, (attention and concentration functions), ability to tolerate stress, ability to relate in social situations, energy and motivation”; (2) she had “quit her last job due to interference from her symptoms, ” was “overwhelmed by the prospect of working at this time, ” and “remain[ed] unable to work”; and (3) she was “fully disabled” and would require “at least 1 year” off work, and that period might become “indefinite.” (AR 464.) Dr. Holbrook submitted another letter on November 17, 2015. She noted that she had “been treating [Brooks] on a monthly basis since 2013.” (AR 615.) She explained that “Ms. Brooks has had difficulties tolerating medications aimed toward treating her PTSD and depression, ” but that she was “receiving some benefit from her medications, ” yet was “still quite impaired on a daily basis, making it difficult for her to maintain an even mood, interact with others, or focus without exacerbation of her psychiatric symptoms.” (Id.) Holbrook opined that Brooks was “incapable of sustaining gainful employment” and “[h]er symptoms . . . are unlikely to resolve adequately in at least the next 12 months or the foreseeable future.” (Id.)

         Dr. Holbrook completed a mental impairment questionnaire about Brooks on March 29, 2016. Holbrook identified some of Brooks’ symptoms as “[d]ifficulty thinking or concentrating”; “[e]asy distractability”; “[s]ocial withdrawal or isolation”; “[h]yperactivity”; “pervasive loss of interests”; and “[d]eeply ingrained, maladaptive patterns of behavior.” (AR 617.) She considered “[h]ypervigilence, insomnia, irritability, [and] difficulties w/ social interactions / mistrust” to be Brooks’ most frequent or severe symptoms. (AR 618.) Holbrook added that Brooks “has tried to work on several occasions resulting in exacerbation of sxs/ w/drawal.” (Id.) As to Brooks’ mental functioning, Holbrook opined that she would have “Marked” limitation in her ability to: (1) “Work in coordination with or near others without being distracted by them”; (2) “Complete a workday without interruptions from psychological symptoms”; (3) “Interact appropriately with the public”; (4) “Ask simple questions or request assistance”; (5) Accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors”; (6) “Get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them”; and (7) “Respond appropriately to workplace changes.” (AR 619.) Dr. Holbrook noted a No. of less severe limitations, but also professed to not knowing about whether Brooks had limitations in twelve different activities. (Id.) Holbrook opined that Brooks’ symptoms and limitations applied on February 1, 2014. (AR 620.) Holbrook completed an “updated” version of this mental impairment questionnaire on February 22, 2017, but most of it is blank. (See AR 696-700.) It directs the reader to “[p]lease refer to previous document.” (AR 696.) The only substantive information on the form is Dr. Holbrook’s note that Brooks “has experience[d] ↑ed auditory hallucinations. Has upcoming neuro appt. I can request independent psychological eval.” (AR 700.)

         Brooks’ records were reviewed by state agency psychologists Jack Spear and Mike Dow on September 16, 2014, and May 26, 2015, respectively. They agreed that Brooks had no restrictions on activities of daily living, nor any repeated episodes of decompensation; only moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and maintaining social functioning. (AR 73-74, 102.) They likewise agreed that she was “capable of learning, remembering & carrying out simple instructions.” (AR 76, 105.) They found that she was “Not significantly limited” in her ability to: (1) “carry out very short and simple instructions”; (2) “perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances”; (3) “sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision”; (4) “make simple work-related decisions”; and (5) “complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable No. and length of rest periods.” (Id.) Likewise, they opined that she was “Moderately limited” in her ability to: (1) “carry out detailed instructions”; (2) “maintain attention and concentration for extended periods”; and (3) “work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them.” (Id.) They agreed that she had social interaction limitations: (1) she was “Moderately limited” in her ability to: (a) “interact appropriately with the general public”; (b) “accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors”; and (c) “get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes”; and (2) “Not significantly limited” in her ability to: (a) “ask simple questions or request assistance” and (b) “maintain socially appropriate behavior and to adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness.” (AR 76-77, 106.) Finally, they opined that Brooks “has moderate difficulty adjusting to increased mental demand and change in routine” based on the fact that she “independently” completed her activities of daily living. (AR 77, 106.)

         B. Claimant’s Hearing Testimony

         At the time of her hearing, Brooks worked part-time at Menard’s stocking shelves. (AR 51.) There, she had only occasional contact with customers, adding that if she could not “deal with it” she could “kind of find somebody else to help them.” (Id.) In the six months prior to her hearing, she had missed approximately six days of work and had left early “numerous, numerous times.” (Id.; see also AR 60-61 (explaining that when she leaves early, she leaves significantly early).) After starting work, she has found her symptoms of PTSD and depression “a little bit harder to deal with.” (AR 54-55.) She returned to work after her husband lost his job; she said she “had to step up.” (AR 52.) She testified that she would “have to do what’s necessary to support [her] children” and that “[i]f [she] had to” she could work more hours. (AR 53.)

         Additionally, she testified that she does household shopping approximately once a month; handles cooking, cleaning and laundry; picks her son up from his extracurricular activities; and assists with household finances. (AR 53-54.) She said that she does not normally ...


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