KENNETH S. APFEL,
Commissioner of Social Security,
[1998 DSD 31]
United States District Court
District of South Dakota
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Filed Sep 24, 1998
Richard H. Battey, Chief Judge
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
[¶1] Pending before the Court are cross motions for summary judgment filed by plaintiff Franki Mayer (Mayer) and the defendant. On April 24, 1995, Mayer applied for Title II disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income payments under Title XVI. Mayer alleged an onset date of December 24, 1994; however, her counsel later stipulated to an amended onset date of April 1, 1995. Both applications were denied through the reconsideration level. On December 12, 1995, a full favorable decision, with drug addiction as a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, was issued by an Attorney Advisor. On August 16, 1996, after objections by Mayer, the Attorney Advisor decision was vacated.
[¶2] Mayer subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concerning denial of her applications. A hearing was held on August 20, 1997. At the hearing, Mayer was represented by counsel, Michael J. Simpson. On October 30, 1997, the ALJ issued his decision denying Mayer's claims. AR 15-23. The ALJ determined that Mayer was not disabled according to the regulations. On April 23, 1998, the Appeals Council declined review of the ALJ's decision. AR 5-6. On May 15, 1998, Mayer commenced this action to review the Commissioner's final decision denying her claims. Mayer is 53 years old and has her GED.
[¶3] This Court has jurisdiction under 42 USC § 405(g) and 42 USC § 1383(c)(3).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
[¶4] The decision of the ALJ must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 USC § 405(g); Metz v. Shalala, 49 F3d 374, 376 (8th Cir. 1995) (citing Sullins v. Shalala, 25 F3d 601, 603 (8th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 573 U.S. 1076, 115 S. Ct. 722, 130 L. Ed. 2d 627 (1995)); Smith v. Shalala, 987 F2d 1371, 1373 (8th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion. Fines v. Apfel, 149 F3d 893 (8th Cir. 1998) (citing Oberst v. Shalala, 2 F3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)). See also Shannon v. Chater, 54 F3d 484, 486 (8th Cir. 1995) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971)); Onstead v. Sullivan, 962 F2d 803 (8th Cir. 1992) (quoting Whitehouse v. Sullivan, 949 F2d 1005, 1007 (8th Cir. 1991)). Review by this Court extends beyond a limited search for the existence of evidence supporting the Commissioner's decision to include giving consideration to evidence in the record which fairly detracts from the decision. Brockman v. Sullivan, 987 F2d 1344, 1346 (8th Cir. 1993); Locher v. Sullivan, 968 F2d 725, 727 (8th Cir. 1992); Turley v. Sullivan, 939 F2d 524, 528 (8th Cir. 1991).
[¶5] However, the Court's role under section 405(g) is to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the decision of the Commissioner and not to reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo. Murphy v. Sullivan, 953 F2d 383, 384 (8th Cir. 1992). Furthermore, a reviewing court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision "merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision." Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993); Smith v. Shalala, 987 F2d at 1374 (citing Locher, 986 F2d at 727 (quoting Baker v. Heckler, 730 F2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984))). The Court must review the Commissioner's decision to determine if an error of law has been committed. Smith v. Sullivan, 982 F2d 308, 311 (8th Cir. 1992); Nettles v. Schweiker, 714 F2d 833, 836 (8th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's conclusions of law are only persuasive, not binding, on the reviewing court. Smith v. Sullivan, 982 F2d at 311; Satterfield v. Mathews, 483 F. Supp. 20, 22 (E.D. Ark. 1979), aff'd per curiam, 615 F2d 1288, 1289 (8th Cir. 1980). As long as the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, then this Court cannot reverse the decision of the ALJ even if the Court would have decided it differently. Smith v. Shalala, 987 F2d at 1374.
[¶6] The sole issue in this case is whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Mayer's nonexertional mental impairments are not disabling. Mayer contends that the ALJ wrongfully disregarded the opinions of several psychologists in reaching this decision. After careful review of the record the Court finds that the ALJ was not in error.
[¶7] In her opening brief, Mayer quotes selectively from various doctors in an attempt to show that there is overwhelming evidence that her mental impairments were severe. Plaintiff's Opening Brief at 2-4. However, when the entire opinion of each doctor is examined, in addition to the opinions of the consultative examiners, a different picture emerges.
[¶8] Dr. Steven C. Wyatt, a psychologist, evaluated Mayer on December 26, 1994. AR 155-164. Dr. Wyatt diagnosed Mayer as having bipolar disorder and Mixed Personality disorder. AR 163-64. He recommended that Mayer seek long-term psychological treatment. AR 164. As for the severity of Mayer's condition and her ability to engage in employment, Dr. Wyatt noted only that "she will need to be involved in a career that is very exciting, constantly changing, and will stimulate both her need for excitement and her intellect." AR 164.
[¶9] On May 4, 1995, Deborah Brown (Brown), a therapist in Spokane, Washington, completed a psychological/psychiatric evaluation form. Brown noted that Mayer had a full scale IQ of 100. AR 165. According to the clinical findings, Mayer suffered moderate depression, anger, social withdrawal, and paranoid behavior. AR 166. All of the other clinical categories were mild or nonexistent. The clinical portion of the evaluation notes "moderate" global illness. Id. Brown diagnosed Mayer with bipolar disorder and personality disorder. Id. As for functional limitations, Mayer had virtually no cognitive limitations but had some marked social factor limitations. AR 167. Finally, Brown noted that Mayer's condition "could be managed with drugs and treatment if she followed through appropriately." Id.
[¶10] Dr. Isaac Lawless, a psychiatrist, examined Mayer in August 1995. Dr. Lawless noted that he did "not find criteria to support the manic phase of bipolar illness." AR 196. Dr. Lawless diagnosed Mayer as "passive aggressive personality with some anti-social features; difficult to separate out addiction from personality traits." AR 198. He concluded by finding that he did "not find history of or the presence of symptoms at this time to support a diagnosis of ADHD or bipolar disorder." AR 199.
[¶11] Dr. J. E. Gordon diagnosed Mayer with bipolar disorder in August 1995. AR 244-45. Dr. Gordon noted that Mayer had "some mild flight of ideas." Id. However, Dr. Gordon did not comment on her ability to perform work.
[¶12] On April 15, 1996, Dr. Michael Rice, completed a psychological/psychiatric evaluation form in which he gave Mayer a global illness severity rating of "moderate" based upon clinical findings. AR 213. As for functional limitations, Dr. Rice found that Mayer was mildly limited in some cognitive factors and moderately limited by some social factors. AR 214. According to the evaluation by Dr. Rice, Mayer had no marked or severe functional limitations. Id.
[¶13] Both of the consultative examiners noted no limitations on Mayer's ability to perform work related activities. Dr. William Cohen diagnosed Mayer as suffering from bipolar disorder but noted no occupational limitations. AR 278. Likewise, Dr. Steven Greenleaf diagnosed bipolar disorder but indicated Mayer was capable of adapting to work-related activities. AR 284.
[¶14] Finally, on September 19, 1997, Dr. Terry R. Hicks diagnosed Mayer with bipolar II disorder and personality disorder. AR 497. Dr. Hicks indicated that Mayer was incapable of work for an indefinite period due to these nonexertional impairments. AR 510.
[¶15] A survey of the medical opinions indicates that there is a consensus on Mayer's condition. Most of the doctors, except Dr. Lawless, agree that Mayer suffers from bipolar disorder and perhaps personality disorder. The fact that Mayer suffers from a mental impairment, however, is not enough to find that she is disabled. There must be evidence that Mayer cannot perform work-related activities for there to be a finding that her mental impairments are disabling.
[¶16] In the record there was inconsistent evidence of her ability to perform work. Only Dr. Hicks definitively indicated that Mayer was unable to work. AR 510. Of the other medical opinions rendered, Dr. Greenleaf and Dr. Cohen both noted that Mayer could return to work. AR 278, 284. Dr. Wyatt noted that Mayer could work in a position which was intellectually challenging and varied. AR 164. Dr. Brown felt Mayer's symptoms could be controlled, thus inferring that she could work. AR 167. Dr. Rice only indicated moderate limitations on her ability to work with some marked functional factors. AR 214. Overall, the medical evidence of Mayer's condition, although not unanimous, supports the ALJ's conclusion that there is no disabling mental condition present. Therefore, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision that Mayer was not disabled.
[¶17] Accordingly, it is hereby
[¶18] ORDERED that Mayer's motion for summary judgment (Docket #11) is denied.
[¶19] IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Docket #12) is granted. Judgment shall be issued against Mayer and in favor of the Commissioner. Costs shall not be assessed against Mayer.