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Hamlin v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 3, 2016

LISHA HAMLIN, Plaintiff,

          Lisha Hamlin, Plaintiff, represented by Francis M. Jackson, Jackson & MacNichol, pro hac vice & Marc D. Pepin, Jackson & MacNichol.

          Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant, represented by Rayford A. Farquhar, United States Attorney's Office.

          Social Security Administration, Interested Party, represented by Thomas D. Ramsey, Office of the General Counsel.


          M. PAGE KELLEY, Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff Lisha Hamlin ("Hamlin") seeks reversal of the decision of Defendant Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), denying her Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (#17.) Defendant moves for an Order affirming the Commissioner's decision (#20), and Hamlin has responded. (#23.) As the administrative record (#11) has been filed and the issues fully briefed (##17, 21, 23), the cross motions stand ready for decision.


         A. Procedural History

         Hamlin applied for DIB on July 5, 2011. (TR[2] 105.) She alleged a disability onset date of November 30, 2009, due to major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and ADHD. (TR 11, 268, 347.) Her application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (TR 9, 118, 121.) On January 24, 2014, a hearing was held before administrative law judge ("ALJ") Francis Hurley. (TR 9, 42-91.) At the hearing, ALJ Hurley heard testimony from Hamlin and vocational expert Diane Durr. (TR 42-43.) On February 27, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (TR 9-36.) On March 26, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Hamlin's request for review. (TR 1-3.) With that, the ALJ's decision became final. See Tefera v. Colvin, 61 F.Supp. 3d 207, 2011 (D. Mass. 2014). On May 7, 2015, having exhausted her administrative remedies, Hamlin filed this action for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (#1.)

         B. Factual History

         At the onset of her alleged disability, Hamlin was 46 years old. (TR 98.) She had past relevant work experience as a certified nurse's aide, customer service manager, director of materials, and unit associate. (TR 83.) Hamlin stated that she had not worked since September 2007 due to alcohol use. (TR 368.)

         1. Medical Records from Treating Sources

         Hamlin argues that the ALJ erred by failing properly to evaluate her impairments caused by alcohol use (in Social Security parlance, "Drug [or] Alcohol Abuse" or "DAA")[3] and mental health impairments. (#17 at 5-12.) As a result, the Court need only focus on Hamlin's mental health and DAA history, not her physical impairments.

         a. Initial Alcohol Rehabilitation: January 2008

         Hamlin's relevant medical history begins on January 11, 2008, when she entered Stanley Street Treatment and Resources for inpatient alcohol detoxification. (TR 15, 359-60.) She had been drinking 2 pints of vodka daily since the year 2000, often drinking to the point of blackout. (TR 1061, 1071.) She presented "full of unresolved grief" from her sister's recent death and her mother's illness. (TR 364.) Her affect was "depressed" and she was experiencing alcohol withdrawal. (TR 15, 357.) At admission her Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") was 45.[4] (TR 369.) She was discharged on January 15, 2008, when her alcohol detox was complete. (TR 15, 361.)

         b. Outpatient Treatment and Period of Sobriety: January 2008 through December 2011

         On April 1, 2008, Hamlin had an initial visit to the New Bedford VA Outpatient Clinic with nurse practitioner Eugenie Keel. (TR 1079, 1199, 1992.) Screening tests indicated depression, but not PTSD. (TR 1085-88, 1205-08, 1998-2001.) Ms. Keel wrote that Hamlin was attending AA meetings daily and had not had a drink since January 10, 2008. (TR 1081, 1203, 1994.) On April 9, 2008, when Hamlin had been sober for nearly 90 days, she had a comprehensive assessment with social worker Ronald Jolin at the same clinic. (TR 12, 15, 1067, 1078, 1187, 1980.) Hamlin had started taking mirtazapine and trazodone. (TR 1068, 1188, 1981.) She was unemployed "due to mental health limitation, " and her activities included watching television, visiting her mother, and staying in bed all day. (TR 1075, 1194-95, 1988.) Mr. Jolin noted immediate memory impairment and difficulty concentrating/attending. (TR 1076, 1196, 1989.) He diagnosed major depression, generalized anxiety disorder ("GAD"), and alcohol dependence in early partial remission, with a GAF of 50. (TR 1077-78, 1197, 1990-91.) Her depression symptoms were "depressed mood; anger/irritability; decreased sleep pattern; tearfulness; depressed concentration; decreased activities and interests; decreased energy and lethargy; 10 lb weight gain and she tends to isolate at home in bed." (TR 1078, 1197, 1991.) Hamlin also presented anxiety symptoms of "excessive worry; restlessness; irritability; decreased sleep pattern; muscle tension; upset stomach; decreased concentration and being easily fatigued." (TR 1078, 1197-98, 1991.)

         On April 21, 2008, Hamlin met with psychologist John Dmochowski for an initial evaluation. (TR 15, 1061, 1183, 1973.) Hamlin's symptoms included trouble falling asleep, guilt, and improved concentration and memory but still with some mind wandering and forgetfulness; her anhedonia and interest were improving. (TR 1061, 1184, 1974.) Her mood was euthymic, affect congruent, attention and concentration intact. (TR 1063, 1186, 1976.) Dr. Dmochowski diagnosed major depressive episode with melancholia and chronic alcoholism in early remission, and assigned a GAF of "55-45-49"[5] with a final score of 49. (TR 1060, 1063, 1183, 1186, 1973, 1976.) In his treatment plan on the same date, Dr. Dmochowski included "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, " "Generalized Anxiety, " "Panic Disorder, " and "Depression" as conditions to be treated with medication and psychotherapy. (TR 1059-60, 1181-83, 1972-73.)

         Hamlin returned to Dr. Dmochowski on June 16, 2008; he noted that she had recently moved to a new apartment and was "making good use of recovery [services]" at the VA. (TR 1055-56, 1178-79, 1965.) Again, he assigned GAF of "55-45-49." (TR 1057, 1180, 1967.) On June 17, 2008, Hamlin saw Mr. Jolin and reported moving to a nicer neighborhood. (TR 1964.) She had been staying sober, and mentioned "feeling less depressed since she was placed on some medication." Id. On July 24, 2008, Hamlin returned to Mr. Jolin, reporting increased depression. (TR 1963.) Hamlin was attending 2-3 AA meetings per day and avoiding drinking. Id. On August 5, 2008, Hamlin saw Ms. Keel, who noted "mood and [function] stable." (TR 1054, 1962.) On September 12, 2008, Hamlin called the VA to request assistance in finding part-time work, saying that she wanted to get out in the world again and help people. (TR 1047, 1173, 1952.) On September 29, 2008, Dr. Dmochowski wrote that Hamlin's "[d]epression, alcoholism are in temporary remission and I think her prognosis is good at this time." (TR 1050, 1955.)

         Hamlin saw Mr. Jolin again on October 31, 2008, "frustrated about not working." (TR 1947.) She had decreased energy and felt depressed, although she also reported feeling better physically and hanging out with friends. Id. On November 10, 2008, Hamlin returned to Dr. Dmochowski, stating that she felt depressed, melancholy, irritable, and anxious, and had withdrawn to her bedroom for more than a month. (TR 1162, 1944.) Dr. Dmochowski found her "more subdued and depressed and anxious than she was last visit, " and copied some text from his initial April 2008 notes. (TR 1163, 1945-46.) He rated Hamlin's GAF as "50-45-50." (TR 1164, 1945-46.)

         On January 7, 2009, Hamlin reported to Mr. Jolin that she had started work as a unit associate at High Point Treatment Center and as an on-call worker at Steppingstone. (TR 1939.) Mr. Jolin noted that "she continues to feel depressed as she [complains of] decreased energy and lethargy... She will be celebrating her 1st year of sobriety on Saturday." (TR 1939-40.) Hamlin returned to Mr. Jolin on February 9, 2009, stating that she discontinued her medications because they upset her stomach. (TR 1938.) She was not sleeping well, continued to have "some depression, " and experienced a lot of stress from working and going to school at BCC.[6] Id.

         Hamlin had an initial visit with registered nurse Suzanne Tokarz on February 12, 2009. (TR 1936.) Nurse Tokarz wrote that Hamlin's mood was "depressed" and her affect "sad, " and that she had maintained sobriety for 13 months. (TR 1937.) Following this appointment, Hamlin resumed taking her medications (Celexa, Wellbutrin, and Zolpidem). (TR 1935-36.) At a visit to Nurse Tokarz on February 25, 2009, Hamlin stated that the medications were helping "a little." (TR 1934.)

         On March 30, 2009, Hamlin returned to Dr. Dmochowski, requesting medication to help with her urges to drink. (TR 1926-27.) Dr. Dmochowski copied the text of his assessment from his April 2008 notes, but added that she had a "recent increase in craving for alcohol." (TR 1929.) The notes are ambiguous as to her GAF on this date: in various locations it is listed as "50-45-50" and 49. (TR 1924, 1929-30.) The next day Hamlin met with Mr. Jolin, who stated that the Wellbutrin and Celexa seemed to be "working well, " that Hamlin was feeling less depressed, and that she was "having more good days than bad days." (TR 1923.) Hamlin was under a lot of stress due to her work and an ongoing breakup with her boyfriend; however, she resisted urges to drink. Id.

         Hamlin met with Nurse Tokarz on April 22, 2009. (TR 1920.) Her mother had passed away after being in a coma for four years, but she was able to avoid drinking in response. (TR 1920-21.) Hamlin was still working and stated she "love[d]" it, was active in AA, and was taking college courses. (TR 1922.) On May 22, 2009, Hamlin met with Mr. Jolin. (TR 1915.) Her boyfriend had moved in, she was back at work after taking leave for her mother's death, and her mood was "up and down" because she was grieving for her mother. (TR 1915-16.) On June 3, 2009, Hamlin saw Nurse Tokarz. Despite receiving an incomplete in one college course, she had "some good and bad days, " showed a "brighter - smiling, calm" affect, and appeared less depressed. (TR 1913-14.)

         Hamlin returned to Dr. Dmochowski on July 6, 2009. (TR 1908.) Her work was "emotionally fatiguing." (TR 1909.) Dr. Dmochowski wrote, as he did in November 2008, that she was "more subdued and depressed and anxious than she was last visit, " copied text from his initial notes from April 2008, and assigned a GAF of "50-45-50" and 50. (TR 1911-12.) On August 26, 2009, Hamlin met with Nurse Tokarz, who noted that Hamlin was compliant with medications, that she had bought a car with the money she saved from not purchasing alcohol, and that her depression was "improving." (TR 1902-03.)

         On October 2, 2009, Hamlin had an initial visit with psychiatrist Timothy Rivinus. (TR 1899.) Dr. Rivinus diagnosed major depressive episode with melancholia and ADHD, adult residual type. (TR 12, 15, 1901.) The note is unclear what GAF he assigned; in one location it is "50-45-50" and in another 60.[7] (TR 1901-02.) Hamlin was taking English and Algebra at BCC and working 24 hours per week. (TR 12, 15, 1899.) On November 4, 2009, Hamlin saw Nurse Tokarz and stated that she was feeling less depressed and "most days are good;" she reported full medication compliance and was sleeping better on doxepin. (TR 15, 1887-88.) However, she was feeling a lot of stress, was "snapping [a lot] at people, " and had to drop her algebra class. (TR 1888.) On November 6, 2009, Hamlin met with Mr. Jolin, who wrote that Hamlin had to withdraw from math class because of irritability and that "the least little thing irritates her... She snaps at people as she is miserable but she doesn't know why. She use[d] to love her job but she doesn't feel that way now." (TR 1886.) Hamlin was maintaining sobriety and attending AA meetings; she had stopped some of her medications but planned to resume. Id.

         On November 18, 2009, Hamlin had an unscheduled emergency visit with Nurse Tokarz, saying that she felt increasingly depressed, had stopped attending work on November 9, and had been staying at home alone in her bedroom. (TR 1884.) Nurse Tokarz noted that Hamlin was "under severe emotional distress at this time and will need to be evaluated by her psychiatrist before starting back to work." (TR 1885.) Dr. Rivinus met with Hamlin the next day. (TR 1880.) Hamlin told him she was "isolating, " and "thinking about my [deceased] mother [a lot]. I think I may have taken on too much." (TR 1880.) Dr. Rivinus assigned a GAF of 45. (TR 1883.)

         Hamlin followed up with Nurse Tokarz on December 30, 2009. (TR 16, 1874.) Hamlin was taking her medications and reported that "things are getting better" and her relationship with her boyfriend was going well. (TR 1874.) However, she was on a three-month medical leave from work; she reported irritability and anger. (TR 16, 1874-75.) Nurse Tokarz wrote that Hamlin looked "quite sad, " but Hamlin denied depression or anxiety. (TR 1874.) Hamlin next saw Dr. Rivinus on January 21, 2010. (TR 16, 1866.) Hamlin stated "I want to feel myself again like I was feeling last summer [2009]. I'm just dragging." (TR 1867.) Her energy was "still poor" and she stayed in bed; she experienced anhedonia and guilt. Id. As before, Dr. Rivinus' notes contain some identical text to previous notes. (TR 16, 1867.) He assigned GAF of 50. (TR 16, 1869.) On January 26, 2010, Hamlin saw Mr. Jolin. (TR 1866.) Confusingly, his notes state "She doesn't know what triggered her alcohol relapse" and "She has been sober for the past two years. She hasn't had the urge to drink." (TR 16, 1866.) There is no further discussion of this fleeting reference to relapse. Hamlin had not returned to work and had taken an incomplete in her BCC course. (TR 1866.)

         On February 8, 2010, Hamlin saw Dr. Than Than Win at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center. (TR 16, 381, 777.) Hamlin requested a psych referral for depression and anxiety, stating that she used to take Celexa and Wellbutrin but stopped over one year ago because she ran out of medication. (TR 16, 381, 777.) The records do not show that Hamlin actually followed up on this request for referral. On December 14, 2011, Hamlin reported to Dr. Win that she had previous issues with alcohol, but had been sober since January 10, 2008. (TR 766.)

         On March 9, 2010, Hamlin returned to Dr. Rivinus, stating that the one-year anniversary of her mother's death was approaching and causing her stress. (TR 16-17, 1860.) Dr. Rivinus' notes contain some identical text from the January 21 visit, but he noted that she "actually seems less [depressed]." (TR 17, 1861.) He assigned a GAF of 60. (TR 1863.) Hamlin had an initial visit with registered nurse Paul Cobb on March 11, 2010, and reported "doing fairly well related to depression, grief and abstaining from alcohol." (TR 1858, 1860.) Hamlin saw Mr. Jolin on March 24, 2010, noting that she "feels better physically and emotionally." (TR 17, 1857.) Her family leave from work had expired, but she felt that working in a detox facility was not helpful to her own recovery. (TR 17, 1857.) She intended to follow up on the incomplete in her BCC course. (TR 1857.) On April 12, 2010, Hamlin again saw Nurse Cobb, reporting that she had gone to the emergency room the Friday before, seeking help for "severe anxiety - shaking, sweating, crying, irritability, jittery." (TR 1854.)

         On May 11, 2010, Hamlin followed up with Dr. Rivinus. (TR 17, 1849.) Hamlin stated she was "still stressing... I wish I was more energy. I'm still not right." (TR 1849.) She was in her 28th month of recovery. (TR 1850.) Dr. Rivinus assigned a GAF of 60. (TR 17, 1852.) On May 24, 2010, Hamlin saw Nurse Cobb and reported that her depression was up and down, but her "life is together, peaceful." (TR 17-18, 1846.) She was attending AA meetings weekly and hanging out with her neighbor, and her husband[8] was sober for over a year. (TR 1846.) During this visit, Dr. Rivinus changed her medication from Buspar to Gabapentin. (TR 1847.) On June 11, 2010, Hamlin met with Mr. Jolin. (TR 18, 540, 1845.) She disclosed that she had recently learned of her partner's criminal record and that they had to move because of it. (TR 540, 1845.) Gabapentin and Wellbutrin were working well, and Ambien helped her sleep. (TR 540, 1845.) She finished her Associate's degree at BCC. (TR 540, 1845.) Hamlin "remained clean and sober" and "seem[ed] to [be] slowly coming out of her depression." (TR 540, 1845.)

         On July 16, 2010, Hamlin saw Dr. Rivinus, stressed over a recent move. (TR 18, 1834.) Dr. Rivinus' notes repeat the same language "I wish I was more energy. I'm still not right." (TR 1835.) He again assigned a GAF of 60. (TR 18, 1838.) On July 26, 2010, Hamlin met with Mr. Jolin and discussed her deteriorating relationship with her partner; she was concerned that he would relapse into drinking. (TR 18, 1831.) On August 9, 2010, Hamlin met with Nurse Cobb, saying that she was "experiencing increased stressors, " feeling "a little more depressed, " with slowed thought and difficulty concentrating. (TR 1827.) She was enrolled in a criminal justice course at BCC, having intermittent crying spells, and experiencing anxiety around signing the lease for her new apartment with her husband. Id. She was doing "OK" on the Wellbutrin but admitted feeling situationally more depressed. Id.

         On August 27, 2010, Hamlin told Dr. Rivinus, "[I feel] like nothing to look forward to." (TR 1819.) He copied identical text from his previous notes and assigned GAF of 60. (TR 1822-23.) Hamlin saw Nurse Cobb on September 20, 2010. (TR 1814.) Although Hamlin was tearful about the anniversary of her sister's death, she had a positive volunteering experience and stated "I'm doing better. I feel well, I want to volunteer, give back something... It's the best I've felt in a long time." (TR 18, 1814.) She was taking Bupropion, Zolpidem, and Gabapentin. (TR 1815.) Hamlin had been sober for nearly three years and was attending AA meetings once every two weeks. Id.

         On October 7, 2010, Hamlin met with Dr. Rivinus, reporting "I feel better. I haven't been stressing. I'm taking care of myself." (TR 1806-07.) He again assigned GAF of 60. (TR 1811-12.) Hamlin saw Mr. Jolin on November 29, 2010, and disclosed that she filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order against her husband, who had been hiding his criminal record and possible drug use. (TR 1805.) She had "been feeling more depressed lately" and increased Wellbutrin, but maintained sobriety. Id. On December 27, 2010, Hamlin met with Ms. Keel and reported that she was continuing her criminal justice classes and felt generally well, although she was "under stress." (TR 675, 1792.) The next day Hamlin told Nurse Cobb "I'm hanging [in] there." (TR 672, 1789.) She had to have the police remove her husband from her apartment; she was convinced he would violate the restraining order and said "I watch my back." (TR 672, 1789.) She disclosed that her husband had been abusive. (TR 672, 1789.) Hamlin was nearing three years of sobriety and "report[ed] her sobriety is safe despite increased stress." (TR 672, 1789.) Her mood was fair and her affect depressed at times. (TR 672, 1789.)

         On January 3, 2011, Hamlin saw Dr. Rivinus. (TR 663, 1781.) Although she experienced urges to drink over the holidays, she intended to meet her three-year sobriety goal. (TR 664, 1781.) The rest of Dr. Rivinus' notes are exact copies of previous notes, including the GAF score of 60. (TR 19, 664-67, 1781-88.) Hamlin met with Mr. Jolin on January 10, 2011. (TR 662, 1779.) Her husband continued to cause her stress and try to get her to relapse, but she planned to take the next steps in obtaining a divorce. (TR 662, 1779.) Hamlin was feeling "more angry than depressed" and "less stressed since her husband isn't living with her." (TR 662, 1779.) On January 24, 2011, she met with Nurse Cobb, and stated that she felt less threatened by her husband. (TR 19, 656, 1774.) She reported depression as "6/10 with 10 worst, " anxiety "OK, " and sleep variable. (TR 19, 657, 1774.) Hamlin was taking Zolpidem and Bupropion. (TR 657, 1774.)

         Hamlin met with Dr. Rivinus on February 25, 2011, and reported that her divorce would be final in July 2011 and that she was looking forward to an internship in a family court office. (TR 19, 649-50, 1767.) The notes contain the same text, including the GAF of 60. (TR 650-53, 1767-1770.) She met with Nurse Cobb on April 4, 2011, and her moods were "stable overall, " although she stated "I think I could be happier." (TR 644, 1676.) She was taking Bupropion, Zolpidem, and Gabapentin. (TR 644, 1676.) Hamlin returned to Nurse Cobb on May 16, 2011, depressed and upset about her ex-husband's harassment. (TR 639-640, 1673.) Her depression was worse, with crying spells, and the stress was making her physically ill and nauseous. (TR 640, 1673.) She continued taking Wellbutrin and Gabapentin. (TR 640, 1673.) Nurse Cobb noted her attitude was "stressed, anxious, " her affect was "depressed, " and her mood was "poor, puts on a happy face." (TR 640, 1673.)

         Hamlin returned to Dr. Rivinus on June 6, 2011. (TR 20, 624, 1659.) His notes contain identical text to previous notes, including the GAF of 60, but he mentioned that Hamlin's exhusband was still harassing her and that she had 3.4 years of sobriety. (TR 20, 625, 627-28, 631, 1660, 1662.) On June 9, 2011, Hamlin saw Mr. Jolin. (TR 20, 623, 1658.) Her ex-husband had violated his restraining order by coming to her house. (TR 623, 1658.) She had withdrawn from a friend who relapsed on alcohol, but became closer to her sister. (TR 623, 1658.) Hamlin returned to Mr. Jolin on July 7, 2011, relating that her husband attacked her car with an ax and threatened to hurt her. (TR 20, 622, 1657.) She also reported increased urges to drink. (TR 622, 1657.)

         On July 11, 2011, Hamlin saw Nurse Cobb. (TR 20, 618, 1653.) Her ex-husband was in jail, but she was still very upset: "I'm really struggling right now" with urges to drink. (TR 619, 1654.) She reported feeling distracted and forgetful, sitting in her home with the lights off and the window shut worrying that her husband would send someone to hurt her. (TR 20, 619, 1654.) She continued taking Wellbutrin and Zolpidem. (TR 619, 1654.) Also on July 11, 2011, Hamlin attended a session of group therapy for substance abuse. (TR 617, 1652.)

         On her Function Report completed July 11, 2011, Hamlin described her day as "Constantly sit in thoughts of emotional distress. Pace, in dark rooms, lights out, try to think but thoughts are scrambled. Eat soup, unable to focus, wash, stay in bedroom. Loner, walk." (TR 299.) She stated that she went out to feed and walk her dogs, buy food at the store, and go to medical appointments. (TR 301.) On November 23, 2011, Hamlin completed a second Function Report in which she described similar life circumstances. (TR 325.)

         Hamlin saw Mr. Jolin on July 28, 2011, reporting the death of two friends from cancer and upcoming court dates for the damage her husband did to her car. (TR 20, 605-06, 1651.) She returned to Mr. Jolin on September 1, 2011, noting that she had been sick daily, had "no energy, " and had felt "awful for the past three weeks." (TR 21, 605, 1650.) Her friends were meeting at places where she would be tempted to drink. (TR 21, 605, 1650.)

         On September 19, 2011, Hamlin saw Nurse Cobb, "very stressed and more depressed, " her divorce was not yet finalized, and she had not been going to AA much. (TR 599-600, 1645-46.) She stayed in bed most of the day unless she had appointments, and had no other activity besides walking her dogs. (TR 600, 1646.) Hamlin requested an increase in Wellbutrin; her affect was "depressed" and her mood "poor." (TR 600-01, 1646.) On October 27, 2011, she met with Mr. Jolin, reporting increased anxiety and depression; she had woken up crying and was angry about having to stay away from friends who drink. (TR 21, 592, 1638.) She had been sober for nearly four years and got out of the house to walk her dogs. (TR 592, 1638.) The next day she told Dr. Rivinus that she had ...

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