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DiAntonio v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 25, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

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For Beth Diantonio, Plaintiff: Francis M. Jackson, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Jackson & MacNichol, South Portland ME; Marc D. Pepin, Tamara N. Gallagher, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jackson & MacNichol, South Portland, ME.

For Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Christine J. Wichers, LEAD ATTORNEY, United States Attorney's Office MA, Boston, MA.

For Social Security Administration, Interested Party: Thomas D. Ramsey, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the General Counsel, Boston, MA.

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The Plaintiff, Beth DiAntonio (" DiAntonio" ), appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the " Commissioner" ) denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. DiAntonio argues that the Administrative Law Judge (the " hearing officer" ) erred in denying her benefits because the decision was not based on substantial evidence. DiAntonio requests that this Court reverse the hearing officer's decision and award her Social Security benefits. Alternatively, DiAntonio asks this Court to remand this case to the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. section 405(g). The Commissioner requests that this Court affirm the hearing officer's decision denying DiAntonio Social Security benefits.

A. Procedural Posture

DiAntonio submitted applications for Social Security benefits on March 27, 2012 and on May 19, 2012. SSA Admin. Record Soc. Sec. Proceedings (" Admin. R." ) 267-76, 277-78, ECF No. 14.[1] The claims were initially denied on July 26, 2012, and again after reconsideration on October 10, 2012. Id. at 132-33, 166-67. DiAntonio subsequently requested a hearing by a hearing officer on November 13, 2012. Id. at 188-89. The hearing officer conducted a hearing in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 20, 2013. Id. at 37-76. DiAntonio and her attorney were present at the hearing. Id. at 37. A vocational expert also appeared at the hearing. Id. The hearing officer denied DiAntonio's application for Social Security benefits on August 27, 2013. Id. at 14-29. On November 21, 2013, the Appeals Council rejected DiAntonio's appeal and made the hearing officer's decision

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the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-5.

On January 22, 2014, DiAntonio filed her complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sections 405(g) and 1383 seeking review of the hearing officer's decision to deny her benefits. Compl., ECF No. 1. The Commissioner submitted an answer on May 27, 2014. Answer, ECF No. 13. On August 7, 2014, DiAntonio filed a motion for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner. Mot. Reverse (With Incorporated Mem. Law) (" Pl.'s Mot. Reverse" ), ECF No. 17. The Commissioner responded with a motion for an order affirming the decision on September 18, 2014. Def.'s Mot. Affirm Comm'r, ECF No. 22; Def.'s Mem. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Affirm Comm'r, ECF No. 23. DiAntonio submitted a response to the Commissioner's motion on October 1, 2014. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Affirm, ECF No. 24. DiAntonio filed a motion to remand the case to the Social Security Administration on October 15, 2014. Pl.'s Mot. Remand Pursuant Sentence Six (" Pl's Mot. Remand" ), ECF No. 25. On October 21, 2014, the Commissioner submitted a memorandum in opposition to DiAntonio's motion to remand. Def.'s Opp'n Pl.'s Mot. Remand Pursuant Sentence Six 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), ECF No. 26. DiAntonio amended her motion to remand and submitted it to this Court on December 29, 2014. Pl.'s First Am. Mot. Remand (" Pl.'s First Am. Mot. Remand" ), ECF No. 27. The Commissioner filed a reply memorandum to the amended motion on December 31, 2014. Def.'s Opp'n Pl.'s Am. Mot. Remand Pursuant Sentence Six 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), ECF No. 28.

B. Factual Background

DiAntonio was born on October 9, 1968. Admin. R. 267. As of September 2, 2011, which is the date DiAntonio allegedly became disabled, she was forty-two years old. See id. DiAntonio contends that she became disabled due to physical and psychological limitations, including thyroid cancer, hypothyroidism, cervical squamous cell cancer, degenerative disc disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (" GERD" ), diabetes, glaucoma, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (" PTSD" ), and generalized anxiety disorder. Pl.'s Mot. Reverse 1.

1. Medical History

a. Physical Impairments

DiAntonio completed high school and worked as a dental assistant for twenty years from 1991 to 2011. Admin. R. 300-01. On August 1, 2011, DiAntonio visited Azhar Q. Mustafa, M.D. (" Dr. Mustafa" ), for swelling of the neck and difficulty in swallowing. Id. at 508. Dr. Mustafa found an enlarged thyroid with one large mass in the lower portion of the left thyroid lobe. Id. Dr. Mustafa surgically removed the left side of DiAntonio's thyroid before the end of August 2011. Id. at 376-77. Further testing showed that DiAntonio had thyroid cancer, and she chose to surgically remove her entire thyroid. Id. at 504-06. The surgery was performed by Dr. Mustafa on October 11, 2011. Id. at 380.

After the surgery, DiAntonio met with oncologist Raymond Dugal, M.D. (" Dr. Dugal" ), on November 4, 2011; Dr. Dugal sugsequently treated DiAntonio with radioactive iodine to eliminate residual thyroid tissue in her body in February 2012. Id. at 547-49, 737. After the treatment, Dr. Dugal wrote in a follow-up note that DiAntonio was generally doing well but still complained of some issues with occasional tightness in her neck and difficulties in swallowing liquid. Id. at 733.

DiAntonio also sought treatment from her family practitioner Holly Alexandre, M.D. (" Dr. Alexandre" ), in November   2011.

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Id. at 432-34. DiAntonio complained that she felt very poorly, had puffy eyes, and had a poor appetite. Id. at 432. Dr. Alexandre saw DiAntonio again in December 2011 to receive treatment for what Dr. Alexandre referred to as her post-surgical hypothyroidism. Id. at 429-30. A June 2012 letter from Dr. Alexandre indicated that DiAntonio was also diagnosed with chronic fatigue and depression. Id. at 455. After complaints of teary and swollen eyes caused by her thyroid medication, DiAntonio's eyes were tested on multiple occasions in the spring of 2012. Id. at 406-10. Her vision remained 20/20 in both eyes. Id.

In August 2012, DiAntonio told nurse practitioner Lisa Farias (" Farias" ) that she was experiencing joint pain and stiffness in her upper and lower extremitiese but felt better " as she is up and about for the day, moving." Id. at 488. DiAntonio also complained of fatigue. Id. at 4 90. Farias advised DiAntonio to get enough fluids, rest, eat healthy, and exercise. Id.

In March 2013, DiAntonio visited Dr. Dugal's office and told him that she still felt fatigued and had difficulty swallowing. Id. at 534. Dr. Dugal noted in a follow-up note that DiAntonio " appears to be doing generally fairly well with no apparent recurrent thyroid cancer." Id.

DiAntonio went to see Frederick Schnure, M.D. (" Dr. Schnure" ), in June 2013 due to complaints of dysphagia and hiccups. Id. at 588. Dr. Schnure believed she had " fairly severe reflux disease, and he asked her to get bed raisers to raise the head of her bed and to eat very little before bedtime. Id. Dr. Schnure ordered a gastric emptying test late in June, and the results were normal. Id. at 725.

b. Mental Impairments

In her first visit to Dr. Alexandre in late August 2011, DiAntonio told the doctor that she was extremely anxious about her recent thyroid cancer diagnosis and could not sleep well. Id. at 438. To relieve her anxiety, Dr. Alexandre prescribed Xanax. Id. at 440. DiAntonio reported continued anxiety issues in November 2011, so her Xanax prescription amount was increased. Id. at 434. At a follow-up visit in December 2011, DiAntonio " fe[lt] somewhat better" but still " struggle[d] with her marriage due to personal problems." Id. at 429.

In May 2012, DiAntonio reported to Dr. Alexandre that she had anxiety issues, fearful thoughts, depressed mood, fatigue, and loss of energy. Id. at 423. She also told her doctor that it was somewhat difficult for her to meet home, work, and social obligations. Id. DiAntonio was scheduled to see a psychiatrist and was prescribed a longer acting medication, Clonazepam, in the meantime. Id. at 424.

In December 2012, DiAntonio saw nurse practitioner Ana Richards (" Richards" ) and reported to the nurse that she had interrupted sleep, mind racing, headaches, low energy, poor concentration, and feelings of guilt and worthlessness.Id. at 708. Richards diagnosed a single episode of major depressive disorder without psychotic features and panic disorder without agoraphobia. Id. at 709. On December 27, 2012, Richards wrote that DiAntonio had good eye contact, intact judgment, improved mood, and a linear and goal oriented thought process. Id. at 707. She felt better than the last visit. Id. Later, in January 2013, DiAntonio was not taking Xanax as much because she was satisfied with her medication regimen and her mood was improved. Id. at 703.

In March 2013, DiAntonio told Dr. Alexandre that she was extremely stressed because " [s]he [was] trying to leave her husband who is using drugs and spending all of ...

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