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Welch v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

January 2, 2020

ELISABETH IRENE WELCH, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          BARBARA B. CRABB DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Elisabeth Welch is seeking review of a final decision by defendant Commissioner of Social Security, denying her claim for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Dkt. #8. (I have amended the caption to reflect that the new Commissioner of Social Security is Andrew M. Saul.) Plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge who decided the case (1) did not account adequately for her limitations in concentration, persistence or pace in his residual functional capacity assessment or in his hypothetical question to the vocational expert; and (2) should have given more weight to the findings of the neuropsychologist who evaluated her in June 2015. For the reasons explained below, I conclude that the administrative law judge did not err in these respects and am affirming his decision.

         The following facts are drawn from the administrative record (AR).

         FACTS

         A. Social Security Applications and Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff Elisabeth Welch was 30 years old when she filed for supplemental security benefits on June 4, 2015, contending that she had been disabled since May 15, 2015 because of mild schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and “pseudo tumor cerebral.” AR 19, 110, 118. She has a high school education and some college credits. AR 25, 40. She was in special education classes throughout her schooling. AR 57-58. She last worked in 2009, but none of her positions qualify as past relevant work. AR 43.

         On March 2, 2018, administrative law judge Paul Jones held a video hearing at which plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. AR 19. Plaintiff was represented by a non-attorney representative at the hearing. (She has been represented by counsel in this proceeding.) At the hearing, plaintiff testified that she loses track of conversations, takes medication for attention deficit disorder, has anger and mood problems and suffers from bipolar disorder. AR 62-64. She further testified that even though she applied for jobs between 2009 and 2016, no one would hire her. AR 43-44.

         In a written decision issued on June 14, 2018, the administrative law judge concluded that plaintiff was severely impaired by depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, neurodevelopmental disorder, schizophrenia, obstructive sleep apnea, headaches and obesity. AR 21. However, the administrative law judge found that none of plaintiff's impairments met or equaled the criteria for any listed impairment, alone or in combination. AR 21. In reviewing the “B criteria” of the mental impairment listings, the administrative law judge found that plaintiff had moderate limitations in interacting with others and in concentration, persistence or pace. AR 22.

         The administrative law judge further determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work limited to simple, routine and repetitive work; no public interaction; occasional changes in workplace setting; and occasional coworker interaction. AR 22. (The administrative law judge also assessed some other physical limitations that are not relevant to plaintiff's appeal.) In reaching his decision with respect to plaintiff's mental impairments, the administrative law judge stated that he gave “great weight” to the opinion of the state agency reviewing psychologist, Dr. John Warren. AR 25.

         Relying on the testimony of a vocational expert who testified in response to a hypothetical question based on plaintiff's residual functional capacity assessment, the administrative law judge found that plaintiff had no past relevant work but that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform, including representative office helper, routing clerk and packer. AR 26.

         B. Relevant Medical Evidence

         At issue in this case are plaintiff's mental impairments, particularly her ability to maintain concentration, persistence or pace. Critical to plaintiff's appeal are the reports of Dr. John Warren and Dr. Gregory Prichett. The findings of these experts are summarized below.

         1. Dr. John Warren

         At the reconsideration level of review on May 16, 2016, state agency psychologist Dr. Warren reviewed the record and noted in the psychiatric review technique assessment that plaintiff had moderate limitations in maintaining social functioning and concentration, persistence or pace. AR 124-25. In the mental residual functional capacity assessment, he rated plaintiff's functioning in four categories-understanding and memory, sustained ...


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