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Prudence White v. Michael J. Astrue

February 3, 2011

PRUDENCE WHITE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wolfson, United States District Judge:

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Prudence White ("Plaintiff") appeals from the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"). The Court has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff contends that the record, when considered in full, substantiates her claims and requires a conclusion that she is entitled to disability insurance benefits under sections 216(I) and 223 of the Act. Specifically, Plaintiff maintains that the Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") erred in determining that Plaintiff was not disabled between her alleged onset date of April 1, 2001 and August 30, 2005. After reviewing the administrative record, this Court finds that the ALJ's decision is based on the substantial evidentiary support required by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, the ALJ's decision is affirmed and Plaintiff's Complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

I. OVERVIEW

A. Procedural History

Plaintiff first filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on July 14, 2002, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2001. Both the initial application and request for reconsideration were denied. A timely request for a hearing was filed on February 19, 2003, and a hearing was held before ALJ Daniel N. Shellhamer on July 14, 2004. On October 27, 2004, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff benefits. Plaintiff subsequently petitioned the Social Security Appeals Council (the "Appeals Council") for review of the ALJ's decision. However, on May 20, 2005, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's petition. Plaintiff subsequently filed for review in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and, on July 6, 2006, a Consent Order was entered by the Honorable Mary Cooper, United States District Judge, remanding the case to the Commissioner of Social Security. A hearing subsequently took place on June 5, 2007 before ALJ Shellhamer. On September 29, 2008, ALJ Shellhamer issued a partially favorable decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to September 1, 2005, but that she became disabled beginning on that date and was, therefore, entitled to benefits under the Act beginning on September 1, 2005. Plaintiff again petitioned the Social Security Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision. However, on January 7, 2010, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's petition, making the ALJ's September 29, 2008 decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

B. Background

Plaintiff was born on August 21, 1954. Administrative Record ("AR") 21, 367. Before her disability, Plaintiff held numerous jobs for short periods of time including working as a court clerk, file clerk, bar maid, receptionist, telemarketer, home health aid and nurse's aid. AR 101, 270-271. Plaintiff claims she stopped working in 2001 as a result of her mental illness. AR 84. According to Plaintiff she has "changed jobs a number of times over the years due to [her] condition" and that she's "also had periods of time [where she] couldn't work at all." AR 84. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that she has difficulty concentrating , AR 84, that she sometimes has difficulty understanding advice or directions, AR 120, that she has a short attention span, cannot follow written or spoken instructions and cannot get along with female superiors. AR 121. Plaintiff has been prescribed various medications over the years related to her mental illness including Trazadone, Risperdal and Lexapro. AR 383.

C. Review of Medical Evidence prior to September 1, 2005

Because this Appeal solely concerns the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff was not disabled from April 2001 through August 30, 2005, the Court will only consider the medical evidence within that time frame. Plaintiff asserts that she is disabled because of various conditions relating to her mental illness including major depression, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric disorders. AR 367. Based on the foregoing conditions, Plaintiff claims a disability onset date of April 1, 2001.

Plaintiff saw Dr. Ustaires at the Greater Trenton CMHC System on April 25, 2001 and, at that time, Dr. Ustaires noted that Plaintiff was alert, oriented times three and that her mood was stable. AR 168. In addition, the progress notes provide that Plaintiff denied suicidal and homicidal ideations and that Plaintiff showed no evidence of delusions. AR 168.

Plaintiff again met with Dr. Ustaires at the Mercer Mental Health Network ("MMHN") on June 13, 2001. At that time, Plaintiff reported that although she had suffered a mood swing in the previous week, with Serzone, her mood became "good and stable." AR 167. Moreover, Plaintiff again denied homicidal and suicidal ideations and Dr. Ustaires noted that there was no evidence of delusions. Id. Plaintiff next met with Dr. Ustaires on July 11, 2001. At that time, Plaintiff denied that she was depressed and denied suicidal and homicidal ideations as well as hallucinations and delusions. Moreover, Plaintiff reported that Respridal helped keep her stable and helped control her anger. Dr. Ustaires also noted that Plaintiff's demeanor was pleasant. AR 167. Plaintiff saw Dr. Ustaires on July 18, 2001 at which time the doctor noted that he had "not seen patient depressed or anxious." AR 166. Moreover, Dr. Ustaires stated that Plaintiff "claims only vague symptoms of mood swings [and] denies depression." In addition, Dr. Ustaires noted that because Plaintiff claimed that Serzone and Risperdal helped control her anger and calm her down, he was continuing these medications. Notes from an August 29, 2001 meeting with Dr. Ustaires demonstrate that Plaintiff was "euthymic" and that her main issue was with "females in authority." AR 165. On January 2, 2002, Plaintiff was assessed as stable. AR 163. On January 23, 2002, Plaintiff reported a mood swing the day before and "report[ed] poor stress tolerance." However, Dr. Ustaires also noted that Plaintiff was alert, oriented times three and that her mood was stable. AR 162.

In September 2002, Sim Platek, MSW, LCSW, Plaintiff's social worker from Catholic Charities reported that Plaintiff had "vague claims of mood swings," but that she had maintained stability" and that she was continuing with "welfare work related programs." AR 176-177. Moreover, Mr. Platek noted that at Plaintiff's last appointment in June 2002, Plaintiff was well-groomed, calm attentive and cooperative, that her thoughts were organized and that she denied hallucinations and delusions. Further, Mr. Platek described Plaintiff's mood as "euthymic." In addition, Mr. Platek noted that there were no limitations with regard to Plaintiff's understanding, memory, concentration and persistence. However, Dr. Platek did note that Plaintiff reported "poor work stress tolerance due to issues with females in authority." AR 180.

Perry Shaw, M.D., evaluated Plaintiff in November 2002 at the request of the Administration. Dr. Shaw stated that he had reviewed therapists' notes between October 2001 and February 2002, and, additionally, that he had seen Plaintiff in November 1998. Dr. Shaw noted that Plaintiff reported that she could not hold a job because of "my sickness" and that Plaintiff had been told that she had "bipolar manic depression [and] mood swings." AR 185. Dr. Shaw found that Plaintiff did not appear sad or morose and that she was neither elated nor depressed. Moreover, Dr. Shaw noted that Plaintiff had no difficulty maintaining eye contact, did not appear tense and was not guarded. Further, Dr. Shaw stated that Plaintiff's associations were rational and that her affect was appropriate. In addition, Dr. Shaw found that Plaintiff did not suffer from hallucinations or delusions. AR 187.

In December 2002, notes from Plaintiff's psychiatric visits with Catholic Charities reveal that Plaintiff was anxious about her children, but that she was alert, oriented times three and that her affect was appropriate. AR 220. In January 2003, Plaintiff was again reported as alert, oriented times three and stable. AR 219. In June, 2003, Plaintiff offered "vague reports of symptoms" but additional notes from Catholic Charities state that Plaintiff was alert, oriented times three and that her mood was stable. AR 218. Moreover, the report states that Plaintiff denied delusions and hallucinations and that her affect was appropriate.

On January 8, 2003, a mental residual functional capacity assessment was performed by state agency physician Dr. Herman Berliss. AR 193-194. Dr. Berliss noted that according to her treating physicians, Plaintiff's current symptoms were "vague claims of mood swings" but that Plaintiff had no limitations with respect to understanding, memory, sustained concentration and persistence. Similarly, Dr. Berliss found that Plaintiff was only mildly restricted in her daily living and in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and moderately limited in maintaining social functioning. Moreover, Dr. Berliss found that Plaintiff had presented no repeated episodes of deterioration. AR 207.

A psychiatric evaluation by Dr. S.C. Mundassery in March 2004 demonstrated that Plaintiff was neatly dressed and clean and that her affect was appropriate. In addition, Dr. Mundassery noted that Plaintiff's cognitive functions, adaptation and judgment were intact. ...


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