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Sherlock v. Astrue

United States District Court, D. Delaware

January 30, 2015

MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


GREGORY M. SLEET, District Judge.


On April 20, 2009, plaintiff Nancy K. Sherlock ("Sherlock"), filed this action against defendant Michael J. Astrue, former Commissioner of Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner"), [1]for review of the final decision denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB").[2](D.I. 1.) Sherlock brought this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Presently before the court is Sherlock's motion for summary judgment and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment. (D.I. 16; D.I. 20.) For the reasons that follow, the court will deny Sherlock's motion and grant the Commissioner's cross-motion. As such, the court affirms the decisions of ALJ Showalter and the Appeals Council. The court's reasoning follows.


Sherlock possesses a high school education. (D.I. 15 at 26, 128.) Up until October 30, 2003-the start-date of Sherlock's claimed period of disability-she worked as clerk for an insurance company, performing semi-skilled tasks. ( Id. at 124.) Sherlock concedes that her alleged disability did not force to stop working; rather, her position was terminated when her employer moved towards a paperless filing system. ( Id. at 29-30, 123.) Sherlock nonetheless argues that she has been unable to work since October 30, 2003, because of her mental impairments. Since 1980, Sherlock has received outpatient psychiatric treatment for bipolar disorder. ( Id. at 178.) At the time of Sherlock's hearing before ALJ Showalter in 2008, she was fifty-four. years old.

A. Medical History

During the relevant time period, Sherlock received regular outpatient mental health treatment with Dr. Mahendra Patel.[3] Sherlock's bipolar disorder manifested as anxiety and mood swings, and rarely Sherlock also showed symptoms of psychosis. ( Id. at 209-17, 252-56.) Dr. Patel's regular progress notes-throughout the period in question: 2003 to 2008-indicate that he believed Sherlock's symptoms were largely mild and under "good control." ( Id. at 252-56.) Dr. Patel also prescribed Sherlock various psychotropic medications to manage her symptoms, including lithium, Zoloft, and BuSpar. ( Id. at 199.)

Separate from Sherlock's regular treatment with Dr. Patel, Dr. Brian Simon, a Delaware state-agency psychologist, evaluated Sherlock on July 18, 2006, in order "[t]o determine [Sherlock's] level of functional problems for disability determination purposes." ( Id. at 178.) Dr. Simon noted that Sherlock "did present as being rather odd, and seem[ed] to be presenting with a number of symptoms suggestive of schizotypal personality disorder." ( Id. at 181.) Nonetheless, Dr. Simon noted that Sherlock did not have significant problems interacting with others, that she was able to care for herself and manage expenses, and that she did not appear to have "any significant difficulties being able to maintain a job." ( Id. ) Dr. Simon recommended ongoing outpatient treatment with Dr. Patel and assessed Sherlock with a GAF score of 57.[4] ( Id. at 182.) On August 4, 2006, a second state-agency psychologist Dr. D. Fulgate completed a "psychological functional capacities evaluation form" for Sherlock, noting mild to moderate impairments in functioning and stating that she was "able to meet the basic mental demands of simple work." ( Id. at 198.) Dr. Carlene Tucker-Okine, yet another state-agency psychologist, reviewed and affirmed the findings of Dr. Fulgate on May 16, 2007. ( Id. at 241.)

Beyond her outpatient care, Sherlock was also hospitalized and received inpatient mental health treatment on two occasions. From August 24 to September 6, 2006-shortly after her evaluations with Dr. Simon and Dr. Fulgate-Sherlock was admitted to the Rockford Center in Newark, Delaware. ( Id. at 199-204.) Sherlock expressed that she "had low energy" and "was not feeling safe." ( Id. at 199.) Financial problems appeared to be contributing to her symptoms. ( Id. ) She was assessed with a GAF score of 25 upon admission. [5] ( Id. ) Dr. Praful Desai, Sherlock's treating physician while at the Rockford Center, stated that Sherlock's discharge goals were: (1) control of depression, (2) control of bipolarity, (3) adjust medications, (4) restore sleep pattern, and (5) improve level of functioning. ( Id. at 204.) At the time of discharge, Sherlock was assessed with a GAF score between 55 and 70, which roughly corresponds to her pre-hospitalization functioning level.[6] ( Id. at 199.)

Sherlock was admitted to the Rockford Center again from October 17 to October 30, 2007, and was again treated by Dr. Desai. ( Id. at 258-60.) She was initially assessed with a GAF score of 15, [7] complaining of being "tired." ( Id. at 258.) Dr. Desai noted that she was oriented but had a difficult time communicating and answering questions. ( Id. at 259.) At discharge, she was assessed with a GAF score of 55 to 60, and Dr. Desai recommended ongoing medication and continued outpatient care with Dr. Patel. ( Id. at 258-60.)

On March 26, 2008, Dr. Patel filled out a Mental Impairment Questionnaire ("MIQ") for Sherlock. ( Id. at 246-51.) He assessed her with a GAF score of 50.[8]( Id. at 246.) Dr. Patel's MIQ stated that Sherlock had "more than a minimal limitation of ability to do any basic work activity." ( Id. at 250.) According to Dr. Patel, increases in mental demands would likely cause

Sherlock to decompensate ( i.e., exhibit worsening symptoms and loss of functioning). ( Id. ) Dr. Patel concluded that Sherlock's "mood swings, periodic psychotic symptoms, anxiety of depression, and poor concentration" precluded her from sustaining a regular job. ( Id. at 251.)

B. Vocational Expert

Ms. Leviton, an impartial vocational expert, testified at Sherlock's hearing before ALJ Showalter. ( Id. at 58-64.) Ms. Leviton testified that Sherlock's past work experience and skills would not be transferable to a new position. ( Id. at 59.) Nonetheless, Ms. Leviton stated that a hypothetical person with Sherlock's impairments and limitations could perform simple, unskilled work, including: assembler for wet-wash (26, 000 positions nationally, 300 locally); bagger for dry cleaning (65, 000 positions nationally, 900 locally); and taper for printed circuit boards (56, 000 positions nationally, 300 locally). ( Id. at 60.) Ms. Leviton explained that these jobs ...

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