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Hart v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 21, 2017

TIMOTHY HART, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Timothy Hart brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his claims for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. Before the Court is Mr. Hart's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security [ECF. No. 16], which seeks to reverse or remand the ALJ decision denying him benefits, and the Commissioner's Motion to Affirm the Decision of Commissioner [ECF No. 19]. For the reasons explained below, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, Mr. Hart's motion to reverse or remand is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion to affirm is ALLOWED.


         A. Statutory and Regulatory Framework: Five-Step Process to Evaluate Disability Claims

         “The Social Security Administration is the federal agency charged with administering both the Social Security disability benefits program, which provides disability insurance for covered workers, and the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides assistance for the indigent aged and disabled.” Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1381a).

         The Social Security Act (“the Act”) provides that an individual shall be considered to be “disabled” if he or she is:

unable 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 twelve months.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The disability must be severe, such that the claimant is unable to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905.

         When evaluating a disability claim under the Act, the Commissioner uses a five-step process, which the First Circuit has explained as follows:

[a]ll five steps are not applied to every applicant, as the determination may be concluded at any step along the process. The steps are: 1) if the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity, the application is denied; 2) if the applicant does not have, or has not had within the relevant time period, a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the application is denied; 3) if the impairment meets the conditions for one of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the application is granted; 4) if the applicant's “residual functional capacity” is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work, then the application is denied; 5) if the applicant, given his or her residual functional capacity, education, work experience, and age, is unable to do any other work, the application is granted.

Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).

         B. Procedural Background

         On February 27, 2013, Mr. Hart filed his application for SSDI benefits. [R. 83].[1] Soon thereafter, on April 4, 2013, he also applied for SSI benefits. [R. 84]. He alleged in both applications that he became disabled on March 21, 2012 due to bipolar disorder and sleep apnea. [R. 85, 95, 202, 209]. On August 5, 2013, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Mr. Hart's applications, and again upon reconsideration on October 3, 2013. [R. 131-36, 144- 46]. On October 7, 2013, Mr. Hart requested an administrative hearing [R. 147], which took place before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Francis Hurley on July 10, 2014 [R. 31]. Mr. Hart, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. [R. 13]. On November 24, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Mr. Hart was not disabled, and therefore not entitled to benefits. [R. 26]. The SSA Appeals Council denied Mr. Hart's Request for Review on November 24, 2014. [R. 1]. On April 9, 2016, Mr. Hart filed a complaint with this Court, seeking to reverse or remand the Commissioner's decision pursuant to § 205(g) of the Act. [ECF. No. 1].

         C. Factual and Medical Background

         Mr. Hart was born on April 24, 1981. [R. 83]. He currently lives in Chelsea, Massachusetts. [R. 83]. He is a high school graduate, and has previously worked as a cashier, telemarketer, waiter, and home health aide. [ECF No. 17 at 4]. He alleges disability due to bipolar disorder and sleep apnea. [R. 85].

         i. Mental Health

         The medical evidence submitted as part of the administrative record, which the ALJ considered in making his ultimate decision, indicates that, on October 25, 2010, Mr. Hart was first seen in connection with his bipolar disorder, which he claimed had been diagnosed two-and-a-half years prior. [R. 330-35]. Mr. Hart had recently moved to Massachusetts from Florida. [R. 331]. He reported that he would get depressed at “the drop of a pin, ” but would return to “normal” in no time. [R. 330]. He stated that he was in a state of hopelessness regarding his relationship, friends, and job status, and was experiencing anxiety symptoms including obsessive thoughts, nervousness, and avoidance of social interactions. [R. 333]. On December 1, 2010, Mr. Hart was seen again at Boston Medical Center. [R. 340]. Kathleen Fuentes, APRN, wrote at that time that Mr. Hart “doesn't present as depressed and doesn't meet criteria for [major depressive disorder] or bipolar issues” and “would benefit from therapy.” [R. 340]. Ms. Fuentes also recommended that he try taking Prozac, which he agreed to. [R. 341]. When he was seen by a provider on December 6, 2010, Mr. Hart reported that Prozac was having “positive effects” and that he believed he could hold a part time job, but that he was worried about the stress involved with work. [R. 336-37].

         In June 2011, Tfawa Haynes, LICSW at Fenway Health conducted a mental health evaluation of Mr. Hart, diagnosed him with bipolar affective disorder, and recommended treatment for moderate depression and anxiety [R. 598-02]. On September 8, 2011, Mr. Hart returned to Fenway Health, where he saw Jennifer Lakins, LMHC. [R. 593]. He reported symptoms of depression, impulsive spending, panic attacks in crowded areas, and a feeling that “people are out to get [him].” [R. 593].

         On February 22, 2012, Erwin Ilano, M.D., treated Mr. Hart, who reported that the prescribed medication was effectively reducing his anxiety, that his mind was not as “rampant, ” and that he was more in control of his situation. [R. 577]. Dr. Ilano observed that his speech rate, rhythm, and volume were normal, and that there were no psychomotor changes. Id. Mr. Hart displayed no signs of overt psychosis and no gross cognitive deficits. Id. He assigned Mr. Hart a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”)[2] score of 59. [R. 578].

         On March 29, 2012, Dr. Ilano again treated Mr. Hart, who complained that he was “feeling more depressed and anxious and [was] having difficulty taking care of himself.” [R. 575]. He also reported insomnia, mood swings, feelings of hopelessness, and intermittent suicidal thoughts. Id. In response, Dr. Ilano increased Mr. Hart's dosage of Lamictal from 100mg to 150mg for mood stabilization, and recommended a “day treatment program for stabilization.” [R. 576].

         On April 24, 2012, Dr. Ilano saw Mr. Hart, who stated that his mood had improved after the medication increase and that he had found temporary housing, but that he had trouble concentrating. [R. 569]. Dr. Ilano observed that his mood and affect were sad, that his speech rate, volume, and rhythm were normal, that there were no psychomotor changes or overt psychosis, and that his insight and judgment were intact. Id. He recommended continuing weekly counseling and support, and continued use of the medication already prescribed. [R. 570].

         During a follow-up visit in July 2012, Mr. Hart told Dr. Ilano that he was still experiencing “ups and downs, ” but that this had become more manageable with treatment. [R. 567]. In subsequent visits in August and September 2012 with Dr. Ilano, Mr. Hart reported that his mood was stable and denied any symptoms of depression and anxiety. [R. 558, 560]. In December 2012, however, he reported to Dr. Ilano that he was “struggling with depression and loneliness, ” partly due to his living and financial situation at that time. [R. 553]. At every visit, Dr. Ilano observed that Mr. Hart's speech rate, volume, and rhythm were normal, there were no psychomotor changes, no overt psychosis, and that his insight and judgment were intact. [R. 553].

         Dr. Ilano saw Mr. Hart again in February, April, and June of 2013. [R. 543, 551, 664]. Mr. Hart reported struggling with the death of his ex-boyfriend [R. 551] and with “feeling that he's not home” [R. 543]. In June, he stated that he broke up with his then-boyfriend but engaged in physical activities and had supportive friends that he could talk to online. [R. 664]. Dr. Ilano consistently observed that Mr. Hart's speech rate, volume, and rhythm were normal, there were no psychomotor changes, no overt psychosis, no gross cognitive deficits, no signs of suicidal or homicidal ideation, and that his insight and judgment were intact. [R. 551, 543, 664]. In April and June, Dr. Ilano also observed that Mr. Hart's “[t]hought process is linear and goal directed, ...

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