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Baldwin v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

March 8, 2018

COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA, [1] Defendant.


          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Kimberly K. Baldwin appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[2] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.


         Baldwin applied for DIB in March 2013, alleging disability as of August 15, 2006. (DE 8 Administrative Record (“AR”) 167-77). She was last insured for DIB on December 31, 2011 (AR 195); therefore, she must establish that she was disabled as of that date. See Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that a claimant must establish that she was disabled as of her date last insured in order to recover DIB benefits).

         The Commissioner denied Baldwin's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 111-19). A hearing was held on August 14, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge Maryann S. Bright (“the ALJ”), at which Baldwin, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert, Sharon Ringenberg (the “VE”), testified. (AR 55-98). On October 31, 2014, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Baldwin, concluding that she was not disabled because she could perform her past relevant work as a warehouse worker, as well as a significant number of other unskilled, medium-exertional jobs in the economy. (AR 34-49). The Appeals Council denied Baldwin's request for review (AR 1-7), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Baldwin filed a complaint with this Court on April 11, 2016, seeking relief from the Commissioner's decision. (DE 1). Baldwin advances just one argument in this appeal-that the ALJ failed to adequately account for her deficits in concentration, persistence, or pace in the RFC and the hypothetical questions posed to the VE. (DE 17 at 9-11).


         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Baldwin was 56 years old (AR 167); had a high school education (AR 200); and possessed past work experience as a warehouse worker (from 2000 to 2006) and a florist worker (from 1995 to 1999) (DE 200). Baldwin alleges disability due to a major depressive disorder, a bipolar I disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (DE 17 at 2).

         A. Baldwin's Testimony at the Hearing

         At the hearing, Baldwin testified as follows: She is divorced and has three adult children. (AR 64-65). For the past two years, she had been living alone in a house, but prior to that her boyfriend lived with her for six years. (AR 64, 75). She has income through two rental properties that she owns, and she drives a car several times a week. (AR 65-66). She was laid off from her job in 2006 along with other workers; she was let go from another job because her employer thought she was stealing. (AR 67-68). When she was employed, she missed about six weeks of work a year, using all of her vacation, personal, and sick days. (AR 69, 76, 82-83). She did not have health insurance from 2006 to 2011, but her family doctor provided her with free care. (AR 73-74).

         When asked why she thought she could not work since before her date last insured, Baldwin stated that she could “hardly function just doing what I have to do.” (AR 72, 88). Yet, Baldwin also stated that the medications provided by her doctor were effective. (AR 74). She had recently started attending counseling. (AR 75). In 2011, she was drinking alcohol (one or two bottles of wine or eight beers) three times a week, but she quit drinking after having gallbladder surgery in 2012. (AR 76). She drank alcohol during the period that she was employed, but it never caused her to miss work. (AR 77). She used to smoke marijuana and use her friend's prescription drugs, but she no longer did so. (AR 78-79).

         Baldwin's typical day from 2006 to 2011 included staying home, performing household tasks such as doing dishes and cleaning, maintaining a garden, and crying in her room. (AR 79-80, 84, 89). Baldwin also visited her father in a nursing home two times a week and occasionally went to a neighbor's house to listen to a band or went out with a girlfriend. (AR 79-80, 84, 89- 90). Baldwin claimed that she often went four or five days without bathing, and that her boyfriend took care of much of the property. (AR 88). She experienced a lot of anxiety when around other people. (AR 89). She had experienced a traumatic event as a teenager and suffered from bad memories and nightmares. (AR 84-85). She had suicidal thoughts from time to time prior to her alleged onset date. (AR 88). She had difficulty with focus and concentration-for example, she would start something on the stove and then forget and leave the room. (AR 85, 89).

         B. Summary of the Relevant Medical Evidence Prior to Baldwin's Date Last Insured

         From mid-2001 through 2005, Baldwin was seen at the Caylor Nickel Clinic for a variety of complaints. (AR 386-437). She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was prescribed medications. (AR 386, 388-89, 397, 419, 432-33, 435-37). In September 2005, the treating physician indicated that Baldwin was “was under a tremendous amount of stress dealing with family issues, also finalizing a divorce, ” noting that Baldwin wanted to take some family medical leave from her job. (AR 386). Baldwin was not treated by a mental health professional during this period.

         In November 2008, Baldwin saw Dr. Milus Skidmore, her family physician, for complaints of depression. (AR 332). He administered a self-rating depression scale, the results of which revealed “severe extreme depression.” (AR 332-33). He diagnosed her with depression and started her on Fluoxetine. (AR 332).

         Baldwin returned to Dr. Skidmore in May 2009 for a follow-up on her depression. (AR 332). She was five feet, five inches tall and weighed 163 pounds; she expressed an interest in starting a weight loss program. (AR 332). Dr. Skidmore diagnosed her with depression and being overweight. (AR 332). He increased her Fluoxetine and also prescribed Phentermine, a weight loss drug. (AR 332). A month later, Baldwin reported that she was feeling better with respect to her depression and was doing well on her medications. (AR 331). In July, Baldwin stated that she still had depression but that she was doing “ok” on medications; she reported that she was dieting and gardening. (AR 330). In August, Baldwin reported that she still had depression, but that her medications were helping. (AR 329). She was working in the garden and around the house; her mother had passed away recently. (AR 328). In December, Baldwin stated that she was doing “ok” as to her depression; she had gone off Phentermine, but wanted to resume it. (AR 326-27).

         In April and May 2010, Baldwin again reported that she was “doing ok” on her medications. (AR 323-24). In September, Baldwin told Dr. Skidmore that her diet pills were helping with her depression and lack of energy. (AR 322). In October, she stated that she was “doing ok, ” but felt depressed, tired, and lethargic. (AR 321).

         In March 2011, Baldwin reported that she was more snappy with people. (AR 318). Dr. Skidmore indicated that Baldwin was positive for crying, sadness, tiredness, and lethargy. (AR 318). A mood questionnaire indicated that she was very depressed. (AR 318-20). The next month, Baldwin stated that she was “doing ok” but that she had decreased energy. (AR 317). In June, she reported very low energy and tearfulness, but she had been out of her medications for a while; she acknowledged that her medications were helpful. (AR 316). She denied any suicidal ideation. (AR 316). In August, Baldwin reported that Prozac was helping, but that she still felt sad and was not doing well; she had been off of Fluoxetine and Phentermine. (AR 315). In October, Baldwin was again “doing ok, ” but she still felt depressed and anxious. (AR 314). Dr. Skidmore documented that Baldwin's mood and affect were “ok.” (AR 314). In November, Baldwin reported the same, and Dr. Skidmore indicated that she was positive for sadness. (AR 313). In December, Baldwin indicated that she was doing better, though she still had depression. (AR 312).

         C. Summary of the Relevant Medical Evidence After Baldwin's Date Last Insured

         In January 2012, Baldwin continued to report depression, but stated that her medications helped motivate her; Dr. Skidmore found that she was positive for sadness. (AR 311). In March, Baldwin stated that she felt better on her medications, was not suicidal, and that she was doing well with Phentermine. (AR 310). In April, Baldwin indicated that she was crying all of the time; her mood was flat, and she appeared sad. (AR 309). In June, Baldwin told Dr. Skidmore that she has a hard time if she does not take Phentermine; her boyfriend wanted to move out. (AR 309). In August, she said that everything was about the same, and that on some days she just wants to stay home. (AR 306). In December, she reported that everything was “ok.” (AR 304).

         In March 2013, Baldwin called Dr. Skidmore and said that she was depressed, but not suicidal, and that she wanted to restart Prozac and Phentermine. (AR 304). She called again a month later, reporting that she felt stressed; she was instructed to go to Cornerstone if she felt suicidal. (AR 304). In May, Baldwin said that she was doing better as to her mental status. (AR 365).

         On May 1, 2013, Baldwin underwent an evaluation at Grant Blackford Mental Health. (AR 334-42). Baldwin was a poor historian and had poor concentration. (AR 334). She stated that she had been prescribed Prozac for the past few years, but was not always compliant with taking it because she would forget to do so. (AR 334). She had been drinking a bottle of wine or six to eight beers each day prior to her September 2012, when she had gallbladder surgery. (AR 335). She had since significantly reduced her alcohol intake, but was still drinking a bottle of wine each week. (AR 335). She also was taking a Xanax or an opiate about once a week if someone gave her one, and was smoking marijuana when she could get it from friends. (AR 335). She was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe without psychotic features; bipolar disorder, most recent episode mixed, severe without psychotic features; PTSD; and alcohol dependence. (AR 341). She had significant problems with sleep deprivation, thinking through issues, and anticipating consequences; mild problems with self care, impulse control, and interpersonal issues; some problems with controlling anger; and severe “work problems.” (AR 341-42). She was assigned a Global Assessment Functioning (“GAF”) score of 25.[4] She was admitted for stabilization and to assess her need for medication. (AR 342). On May 9, 2013, Kenneth Neville, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist, reviewed Baldwin's record and concluded that there was insufficient evidence prior to her date last insured of December 31, 2011, to assess disability. (AR 101-02). Consequently, Dr. Neville found that Baldwin did not have a medically determinable mental impairment prior to her date last insured. (AR 101-02). Joelle Larsen, Ph.D., another state agency psychologist, reached the same conclusion on June 11, 2013. (AR 107-08).

         On May 21, 2013, Baldwin was seen by Dr. Gregory Richardson at Grant Blackford Mental Health. (AR 352). She expressed frustration at dealing with a dysthymic disorder. (AR 352). She denied feeling suicidal and stated that she had been working at appreciating things and had started psychotherapy. (AR 352). Dr. Richardson assessed a GAF score 40 and prescribed a high dose of Trazodone. (AR 353).

         In July 2013, Baldwin reported to Dr. Skidmore that she was involved in therapy at Cornerstone; that she had been diagnosed with PTSD, dysthymic disorder, bipolar disorder, and severe depression; and that Cornerstone had added Trazodone. ...

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