United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
KURT A. WELLS, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA,  Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
Collins, United States Magistrate Judge.
Kurt A. Wells appeals to the district court from a final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying his application under
the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). (DE 1). For the following reasons, the
Commissioner's decision will be REVERSED, and the case
will be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings
in accordance with this Opinion and Order.
applied for DIB and SSI in August 2012, alleging disability
as of April 13, 2012. (DE 8 Administrative Record
(“AR”) 193-202). Wells was last insured for DIB
on December 31, 2012 (AR 20, 220), and thus, with respect to
his DIB claim, he must establish that he was disabled as of
that date. See Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151,
1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that with respect to a DIB
claim, a claimant must establish that he was disabled as of
his date last insured in order to recover DIB).
Commissioner denied Wells's application initially and
upon reconsideration. (AR 137-52). After a timely request, a
hearing was held on November 8, 2013, before Administrative
Law Judge Patricia Melvin (“the ALJ”), at which
Wells, who appeared pro se; James Adams, Wells's case
manager at the Bowen Center; and a vocational expert, Sharon
Ringenberg (the “VE”), testified. (AR 39-86). On
May 14, 2014, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to
Wells, concluding that he was not disabled because despite
the limitations caused by his impairments, he could perform a
significant number of unskilled jobs at all exertional levels
in the economy. (AR 20-30).
the hearing, Wells retained counsel to represent him. (AR 20;
DE 17 at 1). The Appeals Council denied Wells's request
for review (AR 1-15), at which point the ALJ's decision
became the final decision of the Commissioner. See
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.
filed a complaint with this Court on January 21, 2016,
seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision.
(DE 1). Wells advances three arguments in this appeal: (1)
that the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of Candace
Lemke, a psychiatric nurse practitioner; (2) that the ALJ
improperly discounted his symptom testimony; and (3) that the
ALJ improperly weighed the opinions of Drs. Hill and Horton,
the state agency psychologists. (DE 17 at 7-13).
time of the ALJ's decision, Wells was 57 years old (AR
30, 193); had a GED and a real estate appraiser's license
(AR 225); and possessed past relevant work experience as a
real estate appraiser and an account manager (AR 225). He
alleges disability due to generalized anxiety disorder with
agoraphobia, specific phobia of needles, degenerative changes
in the right knee, degenerative changes in the lumbar spine,
degenerative disc disease mostly at ¶ 4-L5 level, and a
degree of central canal stenosis in the lower lumbar region.
(DE 17 at 2).
Wells's Testimony at the Hearing
hearing, Wells, who is six feet tall and weighed 275 pounds
at the time, testified that he is divorced and lives alone in
a subsidized apartment. (AR 46). He was on Medicaid and was
receiving food stamps. (AR 48). He stated that he was a
self-employed real estate appraiser for eight years, which
was a full-time job; however, he had never actually worked
full time because he always had jobs where he could go home
if he had a panic attack. (AR 49). He is independent with his
self care and performs all of the household tasks, including
shopping, laundry, vacuuming, cleaning, and taking out the
garbage. (AR 71-72). He has a driver's license and used
to drive almost every day, but he no longer does so because
he lost his car. (AR 71). In his spare time, he enjoys
watching mysteries and documentaries on the computer. (AR
asked why he thought he could not work, Wells indicated that
his most severe problem is his phobia of injections. (AR 52).
He stated that this phobia causes him to have up to a dozen
panic attacks every day. (AR 52-54). Most of these attacks
are minor, lasting just a few minutes, but some can last
several hours. (AR 53). When he has an attack, he quickly
becomes very hot and sweaty and then loses his breath, so he
quickly finds a way to cool down, such as going to his car,
which is his “safe zone, ” and running the air
conditioning. (AR 53). He also has agoraphobia, stating that
his “only safe place is at home.” (AR 57). He has
panic attacks when leaving home; however, since being
involved in therapy, he has done “pretty well”
with riding the bus, as he has had to get off the bus only a
few times due to panic attacks. (AR 57). He has no problems
getting along with people but tries to avoid them by staying
home; the only people he goes anywhere with are his sister,
his mother, and his son. (AR 70-71).
was taking two anti-anxiety medications and was participating
in counseling, in which he was learning coping skills. (AR
54-56). He indicated that this treatment is effective, but
that even with his medications, he still has four to five
panic attacks a day. (AR 55-56, 58, 61). He had never been to
a hospital for a panic attack because hospitals present his
“biggest fear”; he did, however, admit himself to
St. Joe Behavioral Center for alcohol detoxification in 2002.
(AR 56; see AR 378).
his physical problems, Wells complained of sharp pain in his
low back that radiates to his legs, which had started about
six months earlier. (AR 62-63). The pain, which he rated as
an “eight or a nine” on a 10-point scale, occurs
when he walks or stands “too long” and goes away
almost instantly when he sits down. (AR 63, 65-67). He
estimated that he could walk up to 400 feet and stand for 15
minutes before needing to sit down; he has no pain when
sitting and can sit indefinitely. (AR 67). He thought that he
could lift 20 pounds, and he had no difficulty with reaching,
gripping, handling, pushing or pulling with his arms, or
climbing stairs; his balance, however, “has been
bad” for the last 10 years, causing him to fall on a
few occasions, so he uses a shower chair. (AR 68-69). He
takes Naproxen and Tylenol for his back pain and denied any
medication side effects. (AR 63-65). He stated that he has a
“bad knee, ” but it does not keep him from
working. (AR 67). He also complained of vision problems that
affect his reading, but he still is able to use a computer.
Testimony of Wells's Case Manager
Adams, Wells's case manager at the Bowen Center, also
testified at the hearing. (AR 74-79). He had been treating
Wells two to three times per week for the past seven months.
(AR 76). He stated that Wells has made amazing progress, but
that his phobia is so severe that on an outing to the Art
Museum, he glanced at a picture of a flower that vaguely
resembled a needle and he had a full panic attack. (AR
75-78). Adams estimated that he had witnessed Wells have a
dozen severe panic attacks that lasted for several hours and
caused him to shake; sometimes Wells has to lie on a tile
floor in a public place during a panic attack because he
needs to feel the cold. (AR 76-78). Adams stated that when
they were working on desensitization therapy, Wells was
having 10 to 12 panic attacks a day. (AR 77). When they first
started therapy, Wells could not get on a bus by himself, but
he has progressed enough to do so. (AR 77). It takes Wells
one to two hours of preparation to be able to leave his home.
Summary of the Relevant Medical Evidence Pertaining to
Wells's Physical Health
September 2012, Wells underwent a physical examination by Dr.
Venkata Kancherla at the request of the state agency. (AR
358-60). Wells claimed that his anxiety was so bad that he
could not function. (AR 359). On exam, his far vision was
blurry in the right eye and 20/60 in his left eye, and his
near vision was 20/20 with glasses. (AR 359). His muscle
strength and tone were normal, but he had some fine tremors
in his hands. (AR 359). His gait was normal, and he was able
to squat and walk on his heels and toes. (AR 359). He became
anxious and was hyperventilating at times during the
examination. (AR 359). Dr. Kancherla's impression was
that it was a normal physical examination with normal gait
and medication-controlled hypertension, except that Wells
needed a ophthalmology evaluation and a psychiatric
evaluation. (AR 360).
same month, Dr. J.V. Corcoran, a state agency physician,
reviewed Wells's record and concluded that his physical
impairments were not severe. (AR 91-92). Dr. M. Ruiz, another
state agency physician, affirmed Dr. Corcoran's opinion
in December 2012. (AR 116-17).
March 2013, Wells visited Dr. Robert Wilkins, his family
practitioner, due to back pain. (AR 750-51). The pain
occurred with motion and was relieved by medication and
sitting, and it caused some limitation of his normal
activity. (AR 750). He appeared to be in pain during the
examination. (AR 751). Wells reported that his pain had
worsened in the past few months because he had been walking
more and using the bus system. (AR 750). He weighed 268
pounds at the time. (AR 750). A chair test was positive, but
a straight leg raise test was negative; no muscle atrophy or
tenderness was observed. (AR 751). Dr. Wilkins prescribed
Naproxen. (AR 751). An X-ray of Wells's lumbar spine
showed degenerative disc disease mostly at ¶ 4-L5, and
bony landmarks suggested a degree of central canal stenosis
in the lower lumbar region; there was no acute bone
pathology. (AR 744-45).
2013, Wells returned to Dr. Wilkins for his back pain. (AR
748-49). Wells reported that his pain extended down both legs
and that his thighs felt numb. (AR 748). Although Naproxen
had helped previously, it was not currently helping. (AR
748). He stated that standing causes his back pain and that
lifting and carrying his laundry increases his pain; Dr.
Wilkins observed that his gait was stiff upon getting up. (AR
748-49). He weighed 286 pounds at the time. (AR 749). A chair
test and a straight leg raise test were negative. (AR 749).
Dr. Wilkins's impression was that Wells's back pain
was mostly from arthritis of the facet joints. (AR 749).
September 2013, Wells returned to Dr. Wilkins for his back
pain. (AR 746). He described his low back pain as
“burning, ” stating that it caused some
limitation of his activity. (AR 746). He appeared to be in
pain and demonstrated a limping gait; he had no associated
leg weakness. (AR 746-47). He weighed 291 pounds at the time.
(AR 746). Dr. Wilkins prescribed Tramadol. (AR 747). An MRI
of Wells's lumbar spine revealed a moderate bulge at
¶ 4-L5, and a mild bulge, mild facet arthropathy, and
moderate foraminal narrowing at ¶ 5-S1. (AR 742-43).
Summary of the Relevant Medical Evidence Pertaining to
Wells's Mental Health
April 2012, Dr. Wilkins documented that Wells had a
generalized anxiety disorder, described as moderate. (AR
332). Dr. Wilkins indicated that Wells's symptoms were
worsening and that he had a lot of anxiety, but he was no
longer having panic attacks. (AR 332). Dr. Wilkins stated
that Wells's condition interferes with his daily
functioning and impedes his concentration. (AR 332). Dr.
Wilkins opined that Wells's anxiety and depression render
him unable to work and not a good candidate for
rehabilitation services. (AR 331).
September 2012, Wells underwent a mental status examination
by Wayne Von Bargen, Ph.D., at the request of the state
agency. (AR 362-64). Wells related his severe phobia of
needles, stating that he had self-medicated for years by
drinking alcohol or stealing his wife's medication. (AR
362). He indicated that his phobia had contributed to his
divorce and his vocational difficulties. (AR 362). He had
become increasingly anxious and reclusive over the years, but
was not housebound. (AR 364). His affect was moderately
anxious, but his verbalizations were logical, relevant, and
coherent; his alertness and activity level were normal
overall. (AR 362). Dr. Von Bargen opined that Wells's
history and current presentation revealed an anxiety
disorder, manifested by a specific fear of needles, panic
attacks, and generalized anxiety, and likely a personality
disorder with avoidant and obsessive-compulsive features. ...