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Gast v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 13, 2014

Robert T. Gast, Jr., Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Gregg B. Nelson, Esq., Social Security Disability Law Center, LLC; and Thomas A. Krause, Esq., Schott Mauss & Associates PC, counsel for Plaintiff.

Ann M. Bildtsen, Esq., Assistant United States Attorney, counsel for Defendant.


JEFFREY J. KEYES, Magistrate Judge.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Robert T. Gast, Jr., seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), who denied Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (Doc. Nos. 18, 25.) The parties have consented to this Court's exercise of jurisdiction over all proceedings in this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. (Doc. Nos. 10, 11.) For the reasons stated below, this Court denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grants Defendant's motion for summary judgment.


I. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on June 22, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2008. (Tr. 119-20.)[1] Plaintiff's date last insured is March 31, 2012.[2] (Tr. 12.) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's claim initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 69-73, 79-81.) Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and the hearing was held on April 5, 2012. (Tr. 83-84, 34-61.) On April 11, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 9-33.) Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied the request for review on April 12, 2013. (Tr. 1-6.) Denial by the Appeals Council made the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

II. Background

Plaintiff, born on January 22, 1958, was fifty years old on his alleged onset date of disability, March 1, 2008. (Tr. 119.) Plaintiff has a Master's degree in plant physiology, and he completed all but his thesis in a Ph.D. program and worked as a researcher. (Tr. 337.) Plaintiff was unable to finish his thesis due to his bipolar disorder, and he was hospitalized for a manic episode in 1989. (Tr. 338.)

Plaintiff was diagnosed with Fabry disease[3] in 2000 and developed kidney dysfunction. (Tr. 338.) In 2002, he committed a sexual offense by having a relationship with a 15-year-old girl. (Tr. 339.) He has been in court-ordered treatment since then. ( Id. ) Plaintiff more recently went to vocational school to become a machinist and cabinet maker, working in those industries since 2001. (Tr. 337.)

Plaintiff completed a function report for the SSA in 2008, describing his daily activities. (Tr. 185-92.) He did mental exercises using computer applications. (Tr. 189.) He studied for jobs and went to the workforce center to look for part-time jobs. ( Id. ) He watched television and read. (Tr. 189.) If he had trouble sleeping at night, he took a nap during the day. (Tr. 185.) He shopped and had dinner with others in his apartment building. (Tr. 187-88.) He could both drive and use public transportation. (Tr. 188.) He talked to his sister and friends on the phone. (Tr. 189-90.) At times, he had difficulty with memory and concentration. (Tr. 190.) He followed instructions well and got along with authority figures fairly well. (Tr. 190-91.)

Plaintiff's neighbor, Steve Clasen, completed a third party function report regarding Plaintiff on January 9, 2009, which stated the following. (Tr. 205-13.) Plaintiff wore dirty clothes and did not bathe often enough. (Tr. 207.) Plaintiff was able to do housework and yard work. (Tr. 208.) He had trouble remembering to pay bills. (Tr. 209.) He was often late because he lost track of time. (Tr. 210.) He left tasks unfinished. (Tr. 211.) And he did not handle stress well, but he followed instructions pretty well. (Tr. 211-12.)

A. Medical Records

Plaintiff suffers peripheral neuropathy caused by Fabry disease. (Tr. 358.) The disease is treated with enzyme replacement therapy.[4] ( Id. ) Plaintiff is also treated for mental impairments in the context of court-ordered sexual offender treatment. (Tr. 357, 339, 444.) In early January 2007, Plaintiff saw his psychologist, Dr. Beatrice Robinson. (Tr. 427.) At that time, Plaintiff's impairments were listed as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder; bipolar disorder; and avoidant, schizotypal personality disorder. ( Id. )

On January 18, 2007, Plaintiff reported concern with a recent loss of memory, but he stated he did not think it was a major problem. (Tr. 351.) He reported that he was very busy at work but did not feel unduly stressed or anxious. ( Id. ) The record reflects that Plaintiff was taking Tegretol and Prozac, and, particularly in the context of his partial renal failure, Plaintiff's Tegretol levels could become unusually high and contribute to cognitive and memory problems. ( Id. ) Dr. Chester Whitley noted he would watch Plaintiff's Tegretol levels, a possible cause of cognitive and memory problems. ( Id. ) However, the doctor noted that the symptoms at that time were minimal and limited enough not to cause much concern. ( Id. )

The following day Plaintiff saw Nurse Fran Rowan and Dr. Nancy Richmond for medication management for bipolar II disorder. (Tr. 443-44.) Plaintiff denied feeling depressed and said he was using light therapy to treat his seasonal affective disorder. ( Id. ) He was sleeping eight hours at night but did not feel rested. ( Id. ) Nurse Rowan noted that Plaintiff was not very cooperative with treatment and he wore soiled clothes that day. ( Id. ) Plaintiff said his mood was okay, but Nurse Rowan noted that his affect was mildly dysphoric. ( Id. ) She stated that his thought processes were "somewhat logical and coherent, " but his memory regarding a recent months-long period of cognitive decline was incorrect. ( Id. ) She also noted that Plaintiff seemed to be very obsessive about work, and his judgment and insight were fair to poor. ( Id. )

On January 30, 2007, Dr. Robinson noted that Plaintiff seemed tired and "somewhat confused, in the grip of his obsessive-compulsive disorder." (Tr. 426.) She believed Plaintiff's excessive work hours related to his inability to set boundaries and his need for companionship and socialization. ( Id. ) At that time, Plaintiff agreed not to work more than forty hours per week. ( Id. ) In February, Dr. Robinson noted that Plaintiff was continually late for treatment and unable to set limits on his work, working thirty hours overtime without pay. (Tr. 425.) Plaintiff again agreed to specific work hours, constituting forty-five hours per week, which would allow him to arrive for treatment in a timely manner. ( Id. ) Then, in March, Dr. Robinson confronted Plaintiff about not making treatment a priority. (Tr. 423.)

On March 6, 2007, Nurse Rowan noted that Plaintiff appeared pale, thinner, and somewhat disheveled, but that he said he was fine. (Tr. 441.) His affect was constricted and dysthymic. ( Id. ) His psychomotor evaluation indicated cognitive and memory difficulties and he did not always process information logically and coherently. ( Id. ) Nurse Rowan noted that his workrelated behavior was obsessional, and his judgment and insight were fair to poor. ( Id. ) In addition, Plaintiff was defensive about discontinuing his use of Neurontin because it made him feel hung over during the day. ( Id. ) At that time, Nurse Rowan explained to Plaintiff that he had to be careful with medication changes due to his kidney disorder, and he needed to monitor his hypomanic symptoms. (Tr. 441-42.)

On April 3, 2007, Plaintiff saw Dr. Robinson. He was depressed at that time because he had been in a car accident and hit a pedestrian. (Tr. 421.) Plaintiff reported that there might be financial consequences from the accident, and he had spent the substantial sum of money he had received from his parents' estate in 1991. ( Id. ) Plaintiff indicated, however, that his sister agreed to be his representative-payee to help him manage his finances. ( Id. )

On April 12, 2007, Plaintiff had enzyme replacement therapy and Dr. Whitley noted that Plaintiff had ongoing acroparesthesias[5] and gastrointestinal problems. (Tr. 346.) Plaintiff's adverse infusion reactions were, at the time, well-controlled with medication. ( Id. )

Two weeks later, Dr. Nancy Raymond reevaluated Plaintiff due to concern that his obsessive compulsive personality disorder was interfering with his sex offender treatment. (Tr. 438.) Plaintiff had difficulty completing things because he was a perfectionist, he was a workaholic, and he hoarded things he would never use. (Tr. 438-39.) Dr. Raymond noted that treatment would be difficult because, with his Fabry disease, medication might cause cognitive impairment. (Tr. 439.) Dr. Raymond discontinued Plaintiff's Prozac because Plaintiff was having trouble focusing, but she noted that Plaintiff's mental status was normal, with the exception of mildly flat affect. ( Id. ) Dr. Raymond assessed a GAF score of 70[6] and diagnosed bipolar disorder and obsessive personality disorder. (Tr. 439-40.)

On June 5, 2007, Plaintiff saw Nurse Rowan after he had a manic episode, staying up all night working, after he switched from Prozac to Celexa. (Tr. 435.) Nurse Rowan was concerned about Plaintiff's weight loss and obvious cognitive impairment at that time. (Tr. 435-36.) She noted that his concentration had improved since starting Celexa, but his memory was still up and down. ( Id. ) Plaintiff's weight was down, and he said he was not eating well because he could not afford food. (Tr. 435-36.) In addition, Plaintiff was poorly groomed, and his speech was slow in rate and rhythm. (Tr. 436.) His psychomotor evaluation indicated cognitive slippage, his thought processing was not logical or coherent, and his insight and judgment were very poor. ( Id. ) Nurse Rowan recommended neuropsychological testing. ( Id. )

Two days later, Plaintiff saw Dr. Whitley for enzyme replacement therapy and reported having difficulty with memory and day-to-day functioning. (Tr. 343-44.) Dr. Whitley noted that Plaintiff was very intelligent, but his problems were significantly impairing his quality of life. (Tr. 343.) On examination, Plaintiff seemed mildly depressed and was concerned over the financial and legal ramifications of his car accident. (Tr. 344.) In addition, Dr. Whitley noted Plaintiff's body habitus was bordering on cachectic.[7] ( Id. )

Plaintiff continued to work overtime and was late for treatment with Dr. Robinson in June 2007. (Tr. 417-18.) During a visit, Dr. Robinson questioned Plaintiff's ability to keep working and meeting the requirements of his sex offender treatment. ( Id. ) And on June 27, 2007, they discussed whether Plaintiff should apply for disability and work only part-time. (Tr. 416.)

On July 2, 2007, Plaintiff underwent a neuropsychological examination with Dr. Deborah Roman. (Tr. 337-42.) Plaintiff presented as dysphoric, with a very flat affect. (Tr. 337.) Plaintiff reported that he felt his decline in memory and attention had begun in February 2007, after he fell off a ladder, hit his head, and briefly lost consciousness. (Tr. 338.) However, Plaintiff underwent a brain MRI, and the results were normal. ( Id. ) Dr. Roman noted the following about Plaintiff's history. Plaintiff was diagnosed with Fabry disease in 2000, a disease which caused kidney dysfunction and numbness in his left upper leg. ( Id. ) Plaintiff's attention to detail and perfectionistic approach prevented him from finishing his Ph.D. thesis. ( Id. ) He had started treatment for bipolar disorder in 1989, and he was hospitalized once for a manic episode. ( Id. ) The more depressed he was, the more trouble he had concentrating. (Tr. 339.) And Plaintiff was on probation and court-ordered sex offender treatment since 2002. ( Id. )

During testing with Dr. Roman, Plaintiff was alert, attentive, and worked carefully, and he did not have difficulty understanding or following instructions. ( Id. ) The results showed that Plaintiff's intelligence was in the above-average to superior range, as measured using the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III ( Id. ); his memory was somewhat inconsistent (Tr. 339-40); his executive abilities were grossly intact (Tr. 340); and his testing overall revealed a few mild abnormalities, raising the possibility of mild subcortical brain dysfunction. ( Id. ) Dr. Roman noted that the abnormalities might have been caused by his recent head injury, or by Fabry disease and/or treatment for Fabry disease, or that depression alone might also have caused his cognitive impairments. (Tr. 341.) Because his condition was mild, Dr. Roman recommended use of cognitive aids, such as note-taking and continued mental health treatment. ( Id. )

Plaintiff met with Dr. Robinson in July 2007, and Dr. Robinson noted that Plaintiff was obsessed with working at the time; he established goals for Plaintiff that allowed him to keep working full-time. (Tr. 415.) Dr. Robinson noted some improvement on July 17, 2007. (Tr. 414.) Unfortunately, Plaintiff was laid off from his job on or about July 31, 2007, which increased his depression. (Tr. 413.) At the end of August, Dr. Robinson encouraged Plaintiff to apply for disability and look for a part-time job. (Tr. 412.)

In September 2007, Plaintiff put his disability application on hold and underwent vocational testing. (Tr. 411.) Plaintiff was considering the advantages and disadvantages of several courses of action: applying for disability; "trying to get retooled to work in a science lab" or applying for unemployment; investigating, applying, or volunteering for lab jobs; considering classes; and talking to contacts. (Tr. 410.) On September 28, 2007, Plaintiff saw Drs. Rae Hoesing and Michael Miner for vocational planning. (Tr. 409.) Plaintiff was, at the time, temporarily employed but discouraged about finding permanent employment due to the barriers created by his sex offense. ( Id. ) Plaintiff agreed to do more research about four career options identified in his vocational testing. ( Id. ) And he agreed to inquire about university admission opportunities for people with felonies. ( Id. ) In October 2007, Plaintiff focused on obtaining a work license because his driver's license was suspended. (Tr. 408.)

The following month, Plaintiff relapsed with self-injurious behavior, including hitting himself when his sister was mad at him. (Tr. 405.) He admitted hitting himself so hard that he left bruises on his legs. (Tr. 402.)

In December 2007, one of Plaintiff's therapy assignments was to look for jobs online. (Tr. 403.) On December 12, 2007, Plaintiff seemed more cognitively intact than in the recent past, although he had not slept the previous night due to numbness and tingling in his hands and feet. (Tr. 434.) At the time, Plaintiff was actively searching for a job. ( Id. ) His mental status examination was normal, with the exception of dysthymic affect and obsessional thought content. ( Id. ) And his judgment and insight were fair to good. ( Id. )

On January 8, 2008, Plaintiff reported that he got a temporary job. (Tr. 401.) However, in February 2008, Plaintiff suffered increased depression with suicidal ideation after having an argument with his parole officer. (Tr. 400.) In March 2008, one of Plaintiff's therapeutic goals was to apply for two sciencerelated jobs per week. (Tr. 397.) But on April 1, 2008, Dr. Robinson noted that Plaintiff beat himself with a phone after having a fight with his sister. (Tr. 395-96.)

Plaintiff saw Dr. Raymond on May 2, 2008, presenting with a stable mood and mild depression. (Tr. 432.) He was sleeping well, and his energy and focus were better. ( Id. ) He was looking for a job and hoping to get back into science. ( Id. ) His mental status examination was normal, and Dr. Raymond opined that Plaintiff was "quite stable." ( Id. ) Later that month, Dr. Robinson noted that Plaintiff was argumentative, but that he had improved since the last quarterly review. (Tr. 394.)

Around the middle of May 2008, Plaintiff discontinued taking Celexa and Tegretol, due to dizziness and nausea. (Tr. 431.) His mood was normal, and there were no abnormal findings on his mental status examination. ( Id. ) However, Dr. Raymond was concerned that, being off medication, Plaintiff would develop a manic episode. ( Id. ) Therefore, she prescribed Lamictal. ( Id. )

Several months later, Dr. Robinson confronted Plaintiff about his difficulty with becoming distracted over minor details. (Tr. 389.) She noted that she believed this had contributed to his "offending cycle." ( Id. )

In September 2008, Dr. Raymond noted that Plaintiff's mood appeared "quite stable, " and there were no abnormal findings in his mental status examination. (Tr. 429.) At that time, Plaintiff reported that he was using Ambien occasionally for sleep, but overall he was sleeping pretty well without medication. ( Id. )

In late November 2008, Plaintiff reported doing relatively well on the medications Celexa, Lamictal, and Ambien, although he was generally requiring Ambien to sleep at night. (Tr. 428.) At that time, his mental status examination was normal. ( Id. ) But Plaintiff was somewhat defensive and argumentative in therapy with Dr. Robinson a few days later. (Tr. 380.) And at their next ...

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