United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MICHELLE D. OLMOS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,  Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
N. CARLTON TILLEY, Jr., Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Michelle D. Olmos brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Doc. #2. The administrative record was certified to the Court for review. The parties filed cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. Docs. #10, 12. On November 18, 2014, a hearing was held on the parties' motions. For the reasons explained below, Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is GRANTED, and Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is DENIED.
Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income on October 22, 2007, with an alleged disability onset date of March 31, 2006. (A.R. 62-63, 97, 101.) By letter dated October 14, 2009, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date of disability from March 31, 2006, to October 24, 2007, and noted her willingness to amend further the alleged onset date to May 30, 2008. (Id. at 16, 557.) Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. (Id. at 62-83.) On September 30, 2009, Plaintiff and her attorney appeared before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 30-61.) In his decision dated January 8, 2010, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (E.g., id. at 16.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at 1-6.) In the instant action, Plaintiff alleges that (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility and the medical record which resulted in a Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") finding which is not supported by substantial evidence, (2) the ALJ improperly assessed an opinion in violation of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527, and (3) the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work. Doc. #11 at 1.
Federal law authorizes judicial review, albeit "extremely limited" in scope, of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006); Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "[A] reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation and brackets omitted). "The issue before [the Court], therefore, is not whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 586 (4th Cir. 1996). "Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)).
Plaintiff first alleges that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility and the medical record, resulting in an RFC finding that is not supported by substantial evidence. However, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's credibility determination, evaluation of the medical record, and RFC finding.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff was sincere and fairly credible at the hearing and that her medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms. (A.R. 23.) However, he found that Plaintiff's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms were somewhat inconsistent with the RFC assessment. (Id.) "Because [the ALJ] had the opportunity to observe the demeanor and to determine the credibility of the claimant, the ALJ's observations concerning these questions are to be given great weight." Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984). To enable meaningful review, the ALJ's findings with regard to a claimant's credibility must "contain specific reasons... supported by evidence in the case record." SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *2. Here, the ALJ provided specific reasons, all of which substantial evidence supports, for his credibility determination.
The ALJ noted that, at the hearing, Plaintiff testified "that she was disabled due to major depression, anxiety, PTSD, and panic disorder with agoraphobia." (A.R. 22.) She "reported that she had full-blown attacks when she ventured in public by herself, or even when she was with someone and was unfamiliar with the surroundings." (Id.) She "reported that she was nervous around other people; she had stress at home with her children; and that she had 4 panic attacks weekly." (Id.) She testified "that she became depressed when she had flashbacks from the abuse in her childhood; if someone talked about issues that reminded her of the past; or when people talked specifically about the claimant's past problems." (Id.) She described "depressive symptoms of crying spells, severe depression for 2-3 days at a time; and social isolation. The claimant stated that she had 2 episodes of severe depression in the past month... [and] reported mood swings, confusion, and disorientation due to anxiety and depression." (Id.)
In addition, Plaintiff testified that she has "issues with being social" "[i]f it's a place that [she is] not familiar with and if [she] is [alone]." (Id. at 45.) She becomes "really nervous, jittery, and it's hard to breath, [she] get[s] light-headed and basically [feels] like [she] just want[s] to pass out." (Id.) When her attorney asked, "Does that only happen when you're out in public or in an unfamiliar type of place, " Plaintiff responded, "If it's a unfamiliar type of place." (Id.) Plaintiff testified that she has "trouble getting anxious" while at school "[u]sually" around strangers and she is "afraid to go up to them and talk to them." (Id. at 46.) She testified that her anxiety has become worse since working on her GED because there are students who are grasping material more quickly than she, which embarrasses her and she feels like she does not fit in. (Id. at 58.) She said that there are times that she becomes nervous at school, "get[s] stuck, " and tries her "best to figure it out on her own[, ]" but is able to ask for help if she "push[es] [her]self to get to that point to ask for help because... [she] get[s] embarrassed...." (Id. at 39.) When asked if she has problems with focus and concentration, Plaintiff testified that if she is stressed and goes into a panic attack or if she goes into a deep depression, "it just totally throws [her] off the base of things... daily tasks.... It just throws [her] off the track. [She is] not able to focus. [She has] a tendency to forget." (Id. at 56.) When asked if it made it difficult for her when she is trying to do her work, she testified she "just basically [has] to get up from what [she is] doing at school... [and] go outside or... to the bathroom" to remove herself from the situation. (Id.) She becomes overwhelmed "[e]specially if it [is] something new" because "it just throws [her] off the track." (Id. at 57.) She also testified that the "only [time] when [her depression] is triggered" is when someone mentions her past, causing flashbacks of childhood issues. (Id. at 53.) A depressive episode involving a deep crying spell lasting up to three hours at a time "tends to slow [her] down in everything.... [She has] to push [herself] to do daily normal things." (Id. at 54.)
On the other hand, Plaintiff also testified about the progress that she has made. The ALJ noted that she testified that, at the time of the hearing, she had been attending courses at Surry Community College four hours a day, five times a week for three months to earn her GED. (Id. at 36-37.) She had plans to take the GED test by November 2009. (Id. at 40.) She testified that she attends parent-teacher conferences. (Id. at 41.) On a daily basis, she had been taking her son to daycare and picking up her son and daughter from daycare. (Id. at 38.) She stated that she has "[s]ome" panic attacks when she is out in public, "but they're not as bad as they have been." (Id. at 48.) She explained that she learned from her therapist techniques to work through episodes when she feels "panicky." (Id. at 46-47.) To stop panic attacks, she employs "thought-stopping" and has "learned to tell [herself] that this situation that is bothering [her] at the moment is not worth [her] going into full blown panic attack." (Id. at 48-49.) Plaintiff testified that her therapist has taught her not to concern herself with what others around her think of her and that she is making progress with her therapy. (Id. at 46-47.) In addition to her therapist's assistance, Plaintiff began receiving help from Stop ...