United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
J. CASPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Schyler Riley (“Riley”) filed an application for
supplemental security income (“SSI”) with the
Social Security Administration (“SSA”). R.
Pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
Riley brings this action for judicial review of the final
decision of the Commissioner of the SSA
(“Commissioner”), issued by an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) on September 25, 2014. See
R. 6, 12. Before the Court is Riley's motion to reverse
the ALJ's decision denying SSI, D. 20, and the
Commissioner's motion to affirm the decision, D. 24. For
the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES Riley's
motion to reverse and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion to
was born on January 11, 1967 and was forty-five years old
when she filed a claim for SSI on October 19, 2012. R. 99. In
her claim, she alleged post-traumatic stress disorder
(“PTSD”) as her disability, with an onset date of
October 17, 2012. R. 99-100.
filed an application for SSI on October 19, 2012. R. 99. The
SSA determined Riley was not disabled and denied her claim on
March 7, 2013. R. 103, 117. Riley filed a request for
reconsideration on April 6, 2013 and her claim was again
denied. R. 120-21. On June 11, 2013, Riley filed a request
for a hearing before an ALJ, R. 124, which was held on August
8, 2014, R. 29. Riley appeared at this hearing in person and
was not represented. R. 31. The ALJ found Riley not disabled
and denied her application on September 25, 2014. R. 12.
Riley filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision on
November 11, 2014. R. 10. The Appeals Council denied
Riley's request for review on December 31, 2015,
rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. R. 6. Riley submitted a request, dated February
21, 2016, for an extension to file a civil complaint. R. 2.
The Appeals Council granted the request. R. 1.
Entitlement to SSI
to SSI turns on whether the claimant has a disability,
defined as the “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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a
continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42
U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §
416.905(a). This impairment must be severe, rendering the
claimant unable to do his or her previous work or any other
gainful activity existing in the national economy for which
the claimant is qualified. 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).
is a five-step process to determine whether a claimant has a
disability. Id. § 416.920. The analysis may
conclude at any step. Id. § 416.920(a)(4).
First, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
activity, the Commissioner will find the claimant not
disabled. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). Second, if
the claimant has not had a severe impairment or combination
of impairments during the relevant time period, the
Commissioner will find the claimant not disabled.
Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Third, if the severe
impairment meets or equals those listed in SSA regulations,
the claimant is found disabled. Id. §
416.920(a)(4)(iii). Fourth, the Commissioner determines the
claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv).
If the RFC is such that the claimant can still perform past
relevant work, the claimant is found not disabled.
Id. Fifth, if the RFC, considered in conjunction
with the claimant's age, education and work experience,
renders the claimant unable to do any other work in the
national economy, the Commissioner will find that the
claimant is disabled. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).
Standard of Review
Court may affirm, modify or reverse the decision of the
Commissioner with or without remanding the case for a
rehearing. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This review is
“limited 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). The Commissioner's
findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial
evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Manso-Pizarro v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16
(1st Cir. 1996), which exists when “more than a mere
scintilla” supports the conclusion, Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The
Commissioner's findings of fact “are not conclusive
when derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or
judging matters entrusted to experts.” Nguyen v.
Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (citing Da
Rosa v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 803 F.2d
24, 26 (1st Cir. 1986)).
of credibility and inferences drawn from the facts on record
are the responsibility of the Commissioner, who ultimately
resolves conflicts in the evidence and determines the
disability status of the claimant. Lizotte v. Sec'y
of Health & Human Servs., 654 F.2d 127, 128 (1st
Cir. 1981). As such, the Court must uphold the
Commissioner's decision when “a reasonable mind,
reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept
it as adequate to support [the] conclusion, ” even if
the record could support multiple decisions. Dedis v.
Chater, 956 F.Supp. 45, 49 (D. Mass. 1997) (quoting
Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955
F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991)); see Evangelista v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 826 F.2d 136,
144 (1st Cir. 1987).
Court may liberally construe a pro se
plaintiff's allegations. King v. Colvin, 128
F.Supp.3d 421, 439 (D. Mass. 2015); see Tefera v.
Colvin, 61 F.Supp.3d 207, 214 (D. Mass. 2014).
Before the ALJ
November 2010, Riley saw a psychologist, David H. Gover,
Ed.D., through Massachusetts Rehabilitation Services
(“Mass Rehab”) for a mental status examination.
R. 315-19. Riley told Dr. Gover she was fired from her job at
Best Buy for “vulgar language and threatening
behavior” even though she was “doing good
work.” R. 315-16. Riley also stated that she had
“some problems in the area of verbal
comprehension.” R. 316. Dr. Gover did not observe signs
of depression or anxiety, R. 315, and noted Riley was
“very verbal and personable, ” R. 317. Dr. Gover
also reported “a faint paranoid aroma, ” R. 318,
but remarked, “[Riley] had a very interesting story for
every adversity, but they were all so plausible that I
can't say they don't just represent a rather long bad
situation, ” R. 316. He further noted that Riley
“appear[ed] to have a way of placing blame on a lot of
people in her life for things that have gone wrong for her,
” which often happens when someone “whose
understanding of emotions is low, but their responsiveness to
them is of an exaggerated nature.” R. 317. Dr. Gover
noted that Riley “appeared to have the cognitive
capacity to learn, understand and perform well in a wide
variety of job situations, but she need[ed] to deal with
emotional factors that have interfered with her performance
on a chronic basis, ” id., which could be
treated most successfully with one-on-one psychotherapy, R.
318. He suggested that Riley's presentation was more
indicative of a personality disorder than an affective
disorder. R. 317. Dr. Gover gave Riley a GAF score of 75.
began treatment with a psychiatrist, Murtuza Vali, M.D., in
October 2012. R. 286. Dr. Vali observed Riley was coherent in
speech and thoughts, cooperative, goal directed and had a
“congruent” affect, although Riley reported
feeling depressed that day. Id. Dr. Vali noted Riley
had a “bizarre” paranoia “regarding [a]
family member [who] was experimented on in school” and
“poor insight into [the] nature of [her own]
suspiciousness and paranoia.” Id. Dr. Vali
diagnosed Riley with PTSD with “possible persecutory
delusions” and prescribed Abilify, giving Riley a GAF
score of 40. Id.
November 7, 2012, Dr. Vali noted Riley was “pleasant
and smiling, ” cooperative and “less
distressed.” R. 284. Dr. Vali also observed that Riley
was goal directed and coherent in speech and thoughts,
assessing a GAF score of 40. Id. Riley told Dr. Vali
she had been compliant with Abilify, though her “past
trauma still bother[ed] her and she [was] depressed [about]
not having her son . . . [who was] currently . . . in [the
Department of Children and Families] custody.”
Id. Dr. Vali reported that Riley's previous
paranoia regarding a family member had decreased in intensity
and concluded that Riley had shown overall improvement with
November 7, 2012, Dr. Vali completed a mental health
assessment for Riley. See R. 252-55. Dr. Vali stated
Riley complained of “grief and feelings of loss related
to [her] son being removed” from her home. R. 252.
Additionally, Dr. Vali noted that Riley “present[ed]
with numerous delusions including thinking that her son has a
‘genetic alteration' and that the school was
‘running experiments' on him” and Riley
“report[ed] flashbacks related to [domestic violence]
by [her] ex-boyfriend.” Id. Dr. Vali observed
that Riley was well groomed, had a “good rapport,
” appeared of average intelligence and
“report[ed] no memory or concentration problems,
” while also stating that Riley had “mild
tangentiality on thought processes” and a
“somewhat incongruent” mood and affect.
Id. Dr. Vali noted Riley's PTSD diagnosis and
Abilify prescription. R. 253. In regard to Riley's
functional capacity, Dr. Vali opined that Riley had an
impairment that would affect her ability to work and would
last more than a year. R. 255. Dr. Vali observed that
Riley's suspiciousness could “affect her ability to
work with her colleagues.” R. 254.
December 14, 2012, Dr. Vali noted that Riley “appeared
pleasant and smiling.” R. 282. Dr. Vali also reported
that Riley denied any paranoid concerns and stated her past
trauma still bothered her. Id. Additionally, Dr.
Vali observed that Riley was cooperative, less distressed,
goal directed and coherent in speech and thoughts.
Id. Dr. Vali concluded Riley had shown improvement
with Abilify, although she still had “poor insight into
nature of suspiciousness and paranoia, ” and increased
Riley's dosage. Id. Dr. Vali assessed
Riley's GAF score at 55. Id.
March 7, 2013, Dr. Vali noted Riley “appeared pleasant
and smiling this afternoon . . . had been compliant [with]
Abilify . . . denied any paranoid concerns . . . stated past
trauma still bother[ed] her . . . [and] denied any
significant PTSD [symptoms].” R. 295. Dr. Vali also
noted that Riley was goal directed and coherent in speech and
thoughts and had fair insight and judgment. Id. Dr.
Vali assessed that Riley had shown overall improvement with
Abilify and gave her a GAF score of 60.
N. Shapse, Ph.D., a psychologist, saw Riley in March 2013. R.
298. He spoke with Riley and conducted a number of
psychological tests. R. 298-307. Dr. Shapse found that Riley
was oriented to time, date, place and person, appropriately
dressed in casual attire, able to maintain attention,
generally able to comprehend instructions and completed all
required tasks as directed. R. 302. Dr. Shapse also observed
that Riley's range of emotions was “normal with
affect consistent with topics discussed, ” there was
“no evidence of delusions or hallucinations nor did she
appear paranoid” and she had intellectual functioning
in the average to high average range. Id.
Furthermore, Dr. Shapse determined that Riley's memory
function was unimpaired, her interpersonal style was
cooperative and her insight and judgment were appropriate.
Id. Dr. Shapse stated that Riley “evidenced no
special or behavioral needs.” Id.
Shapse noted that Riley reported she experienced few symptoms
related to PTSD, but “[t]esting reveal[ed] otherwise,
” R. 302, as she “indicate[d] past traumatic
stresses: reliving something horrible that has occurred in
the past and being long time troubled by memories of a bad
experience, ” R. 303. He explained that the
“[t]ests showed a defensive response style which limits
the utility of these findings” as Riley “did not
answer questions in a forthright manner, tending to portray
herself as being relatively free of common shortcomings to
which most individuals will admit, ” and “was
reluctant as well to recognize minor faults in
herself.” R. 302. Dr. Shapse noted that this type of
defensive response is “actually common in custody and
termination of parental rights matters” and stems from
“concern about being evaluated unfavorably.” R.
302-03. Furthermore, Riley's “level of
defensiveness or ‘look good' responding [was] not
necessarily higher than others being evaluated for similar
reasons.” R. 303. Dr. Shapse commented that the
“reader of this report should therefore note that the
following findings may underestimate the level of pathology
of any psychological ...