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Hill v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 9, 2015

MATHEW J. HILL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


RICHARD G. STEARNS, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Mathew J. Hill ("Hill") filed claims for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and supplemental security income ("SSI"). R. 34, 162-67.[1] Pursuant to the procedures set forth in the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), Hill now brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner"), issued by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on February 23, 2012, denying his claim. D. 1; R. 31-53. Before the Court are Hill's motion for judgment on the pleadings to reverse and remand for an award of benefits, D. 14, and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the ALJ's decision, D. 22. For the reasons explained below, the Court DENIES Hill's motion and ALLOWS the Commissioner's motion.

II. Factual Background

Hill stopped working full time when he was 33 years old. R. 47. He previously worked as a tax analyst, a shipping and receiving clerk for two retail stores and a pizza cook and delivery person. R. 58-60, 68, 205-09. Hill filed applications for SSDI and SSI, alleging he was unable to work as of March 20, 2008 due to anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia and depression. R. 34, 36, 162-67. At the hearing, Hill's attorney amended the onset date of Hill's condition to January 31, 2009. R. 34, 59.

III. Procedural Background

Hill filed applications for SSDI and SSI on February 23, 2010.[2] R. 34, 162-67. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") initially denied Hill's claims on June 10, 2010, R. 97-102, and again upon reconsideration on December 8, 2010, R. 104-09. Hill requested a hearing before an ALJ, R. 110-12, which was held on February 2, 2012. R. 55-75. In a written decision dated February 23, 2012, the ALJ determined Hill was not disabled within the definition of the Social Security Act and denied his claims. R. 31-53. On April 23, 2013, the Appeals Council denied a request to review Hill's claim, rendering the decision of the ALJ the Commissioner's final decision. R. 1-6.

IV. Discussion

A. Legal Standards

1. Entitlement to Disability Benefits and Social Security Income

A claimant's entitlement to SSDI and SSI turns on whether he has a "disability, " which is defined in this context as an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505. The inability must be severe, rendering the claimant unable to do any of his previous work or any other substantial gainful activity which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505-1511.

The Commissioner follows a five-step process to determine whether an individual has a disability, and, thus, whether the benefits should be granted. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. All five steps are applied to every applicant; the determination may be concluded at any step along the process. Id . First, if the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity, then the application is denied. Id . Second, if the applicant does not have or has not had within the relevant time period a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, then the application is denied. Id . Third, if the impairment meets the condition for one of the "listed" impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the application is granted. Id . Fourth, where the impairment does not meet the conditions of one of the "listed" impairments, if the applicant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC") is such that he can still perform past relevant work, then the application is denied. Id . Fifth and finally, if the applicant, given his RFC, education, work experience and age, is unable to do any other work, the application is granted. Id.

2. Standard of Review

This Court may affirm, modify or reverse a decision of the Commissioner upon review of the pleadings and the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This review is limited, however, "to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence." Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000) (citing Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999)). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court must accept the factual findings of the Commissioner as conclusive "if supported by substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence exists where "a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the Commissioner's] conclusion." Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981). The reviewing Court must adhere to these findings "even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence." Whitzel v. Astrue, 792 F.Supp.2d 143, 148 (D. Mass. 2011) (citing Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987)). The ALJ's findings of fact, however, "are not conclusive when derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts." Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35 (citations omitted). Thus, if the ALJ made a legal or factual error, Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir.1996) (citation omitted), the Court may reverse or remand such decision to consider new material evidence or to apply the correct legal standard. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

B. Before the ALJ

1. Medical History

a. Treatment Records

From March 19, 2008 to September 29, 2009, Dr. Scott Perman treated Hill. R. 254-62. These records include diagnoses of Hill for anxiety, panic disorder without agoraphobia and tobacco dependence. R. 254-62. At Hill's March 19, 2008 visit, a "medication check, " Dr. Perman noted Hill "tapered off Effexor since [his] last visit" and was using Clonazepam. R. 261. Dr. Perman further reported Hill "[r]ecently lost job, " was "about to lose [his] health insurance and [was] very stressed/anxious about this, " but "[felt] getting back on meds would be helpful." Id . Dr. Perman "tapered up" Hill's dose of Effexor to a higher dosage and refilled the Clonazepam prescription. Id . Hill visited Dr. Perman again on April 9, 2008. R. 260. Dr. Perman noted Hill had some increased stressors due to a job loss, but was "overall doing much better on meds." Id . After a December 15, 2008 visit, Dr. Perman noted Hill had "stopped Effexor and used Clonazepam sparingly until it ran out." R. 258. He also reported Hill's "anxiety had been much worse off meds, [and he was] looking to resume these." Id . By January 14, 2009, Hill had resumed Effexor and Clonazepam, R. 256, and was "[d]oing much better, " his "panic and anxiety [] [were] well controlled, " and Hill had "no current complaints." Id.

Dr. Maria Salvador, a psychiatrist, was Hill's therapist from July 23, 2009 to April 22, 2010. R. 267, 550-81. On July 23, 2009, Dr. Salvador diagnosed Hill with panic disorder with agoraphobia and alcohol abuse with psychological dependence. R. 580. Hill stated his reason for seeking counseling was because he was unable to leave the house to visit his mother, was afraid to drive and suffered from panic attacks, particularly while in malls and big stores. R. 572. He reported taking Effexor twice daily and Clonazepam three times a day for anxiety. Id.

On September 29, 2009, Hill called Dr. Perman's office complaining of increased anxiety, explaining he was "finding it hard to leave the house" and that "driving [was] impossible." R. 254. Dr. Perman refilled Hill's Effexor prescription and told Hill to follow up with him and his primary care physician. Id . On October 15, 2009, Hill reported to Dr. Salvador that he was consuming three to four cups of coffee per day, which Dr. Salvador advised might have contributed to his anxiety level. R. 569. On November 5, 2009, Hill stated he attended his roommate's birthday party without incident, although he felt "overwhelmed" by things he could not control and calling his attorney "created extreme anxiety for him." R. 560. On November 10, 2009, Dr. Salvador noted Hill "discontinued taking Effexor due to not seeing wanted results." R. 560. In a letter to Hill's attorney dated November 19, 2009, Dr. Salvador reported Hill had "intense anxiety and fear in relation to driving long distances" and described Hill's panic attacks as consisting of "chills, sweating, and feeling as if he [were] dying." R. 267. Moreover, Dr. Salvador stated Hill's safety "could potentially be jeopardized if [] forced to drive, " and that "the [daily] challenges [Hill] encounter[ed]... contribute[d] to his inability to acquire and maintain employment." Id.

On December 3, 2009, Dr. Debbie Fuentes, Hill's primary care physician, prescribed Paxil. R. 440, 561. That month, Dr. Salvador encouraged Hill to drive longer distances and noted on December 17, 2010 that Hill "drove further [with] his roommate." R. 558-59. On January 7, 2010, however, Hill told Dr. Salvador he "ha[d] not been able to leave his home" because his roommate went away for a week. R. 558. Hill was then admitted to McLean Hospital ("McLean") on January 10, 2010 for intoxication, depression and agoraphobia. R. 270, 332. He was discharged on January 14, 2010, and then attended five sessions of a partial hospitalization program at McLean from January 19, 2010 to January 29, 2010. R. 270-71, 282. According to a discharge summary report, Hill had been sober for more than a year but began drinking four to five days prior to his admission due to his roommate's absence. R. 270. Dr. Marc Silbret, the psychologist who treated him at McLean, prescribed several medications and observed Hill's condition improved by the time he was discharged. R. 284-85. Dr. Salvador noted Hill was "euphoric" on January 29, 2010 and was able to explain what he had learned in group therapy. R. 556.

Enid Snidman, an advanced practice registered nurse, treated Hill from February 16, 2010 to March 16, 2010. R. 470-85. In her initial evaluation, Ms. Snidman ruled out bipolar disorder, suggested Hill attend Alcoholics Anonymous, and asked Hill to consider taking Abilify. R. 482. According to Ms. Snidman's March 16, 2010 treatment notes, Hill reported his mood improved due to Abilify. R. 472-73.

Hill continued therapy with Dr. Salvador upon his release from McLean through April 22, 2010, R. 550-55, and then began outpatient treatment at NorthEast Health Services ("NorthEast") on June 1, 2010. R. 518. June and July 2010 progress notes indicated Hill's anxiety limited his ability to leave his home and interact with people, R. 503-04, and that "[h]is anxiety [was] largely due to boredom and being in the home." R. 505. On July 22, 2010, Dr. Peter Saltzman ("Dr. Saltzman"), a psychiatrist at NorthEast, evaluated Hill and diagnosed him with panic disorder with agoraphobia and ...

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