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Barnes v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

December 19, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          William M. Conley District Judge.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Deborah A. Barnes seeks judicial review of a final determination that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act between her alleged onset date of April 4, 2012, and the date of her hearing, May 10, 2017. Barnes contends that remand is warranted because the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in (1) discounting the opinion of her treating psychiatrist, (2) evaluating whether Barnes met or equaled Listing 12.06, and (3) determining that Barnes’ subjective allegations contradict substantive evidence in the record. The court held a telephonic hearing on December 18, 2019, at which the parties appeared by counsel. After considering the parties’ briefing and arguments made during the hearing, the court agrees with plaintiff that the ALJ failed to provide good reasons for discounting the opinion of Barnes’ treating psychiatrist. As such, the court will reverse and remand for further proceedings.


         A. Overview of Claim

         Plaintiff Deborah A. Barnes applied for social security disability benefits on March 24, 2014, claiming an alleged onset date of April 4, 2012. With a birth date of November 27, 1963, Barnes was at the very top end of the “younger individual” range on the alleged disability onset date and moved into the “closely approaching advanced age” range during the administrative proceedings. Until her alleged onset date, Barnes had past work experience as a customer service representative, virtual receptionist, sales representative and insurance agent. She claimed disability based on bi-polar disorder, anxiety, panic disorder, depression, ADD, hypothyroidism and edema. (AR 84.)

         B. ALJ Decision

         The ALJ John Martin held an in-person hearing on May 10, 2017, at which the plaintiff appeared personally and by counsel. The ALJ concluded that as of the alleged onset date, Barnes suffered from the following severe impairments: an organic mental disorder, an affective disorder, and an anxiety disorder. (AR 22.) In so finding, the ALJ rejected Barnes’ claim of an inability to work due to edema and hypothyroidism, finding each controlled by medication and neither caused significant work-related limitations. (Id.)

         In light of the ALJ’s finding of severe mental health issues, he then considered whether Barnes’ issues met or medically equaled Listing 12.02 (organic mental disorders), Listing 12.04 (affective disorders), and Listing 12.06 (anxiety disorders). In evaluating the paragraph B criteria, the ALJ concluded that Barns has: moderate limitations in understanding, remembering or applying information; moderate limitations in interacting with others; moderate limitations in concentrating, persisting or maintaining pace; and mild limitations in adapting or managing oneself.” (AR 23.) Notably, the ALJ did not find any marked or extreme limitations.

         The ALJ acknowledged that if he had accepted the September 3, 2015, report of plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist, Dr. Patricia F. McCafferty, then Barnes would meet either Listing 12.04 or 12.06. The ALJ, however, found her opinion “extreme” and “did not assign it any significant weight. (AR 23.) Later in the opinion, the ALJ explained that the marked or extreme restrictions noted in the September 3 report are “too overstated to assign it significant weight,” specifically noting the lack of any hospitalizations and McCafferty’s treatment notes, which “did not support such extreme deterioration in Ms. Barnes’s condition” from March or May 2015 to September 2015. (AR 27.) The ALJ also explained that he viewed all three of Dr. McCafferty’s reports -- in addition to the September 3 report, McCafferty had prepared two earlier ones from March and May 2015 -- as “inconsistent.” (Id.)

         Still, in determining Barnes’ residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ concluded that she could “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with nonexterional limitations.” (AR 23-24.) Specifically, the ALJ limited her to

perfom[in] only simply, routine and repetitive tasks, but not at a production rate pace (e.g. assembly line work). She could make simple work-related decisions. She could have only occasional interactions with the public, supervisors and co-workers.

(AR 24.)[2] In arriving at these limitations, the ALJ relied on Barnes’ hearing testimony and her medical records, noting “her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, bipolar II disorder and a generalized anxiety disorder.” (Id.) The ALJ also noted Barnes’ treatment, including medication management with Dr. McCafferty, and ongoing individual and group therapy.

         In discounting Barnes’ claims of additional limitations generally and Dr. McCafferty’s opinion, the ALJ relied on: (1) “persistent problems with noncompliance, including no-shows for appointment” and notations that the “claimant often started, stopped or adjusted her medications on her own for a variety of reasons”; (2) some treatment notes describing the claimant as “improved,” commenting that she was dressed and groomed appropriately, maintained good eye contact, with “unpressured speech,” was “pleasant and cooperative,” and “maintained control”; (3) Barnes’ engaged in “significant daily activities,” including caring for her dogs, cleaning her house, doing laundry, preparing simple meals and babysitting for her granddaughter; and (4) Barnes’ travel to Florida (2015), Mexico (2016) and the Madeline Island (2013). The ALJ also relied on the opinions of two state agency doctors, Larry Kravitz, Psy.D. (review completed on August 12, 2014), and Dr. Carlos Jusino-Berrios (review completed on June 4, 2015), based on their review of the medical records, assigning great weight to their findings of only mild or moderate limitations in the paragraph B criteria described above, as well as their finding that Barnes has the capacity to sustain simple work. (AR 91, 108.)

         The ALJ also summarized the findings in a report, following Barnes’ neuropsychological testing by Gary Bauste, Psy.D., which was completed in August 2014, without explaining how this report impacted his view of her cognitive limitations. The ALJ further noted repeated concerns in the medical record regarding Barnes’ auditory difficulties, and the need for hearing aids, but, again, did not describe how he factored this limitation into his RFC.

         Finally, consistent with the vocational expert’s testimony, the ALJ found that Barnes could not preform her past jobs, but that she could perform vehicle cleaner, food preparation and routine office clerk jobs, all of which have significant numbers in ...

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