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Auchey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 29, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.




         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), regarding an individual's entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). William Auchey (“Plaintiff”) applied for benefits in April of 2012, alleging disability beginning February 24, 2012. He asserts the Commissioner's decision denying him benefits, memorialized in the April 3, 2014 decision of an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), is in error. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiff claims the ALJ (1) ignored and mischaracterized evidence demonstrating Plaintiff suffered persistent mental limitations; (2) improperly failed to consider whether Plaintiff's medication noncompliance either resulted from errors by staff at the residential program where Plaintiff lived or a symptom of Plaintiff's mental illness; (3) relied upon an inaccurate characterization of the disability definition; (4) failed to properly consider provider opinions; and (5) made credibility determinations that were unsupported by the evidence. In response, the Commissioner contends the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and any legal errors were not harmful.

         Though the parties are no doubt familiar with Plaintiff's factual history, the court finds it helpful to set out its own chronology of Plaintiff's history relevant to his application for SSDI, before proceeding to its discussion.


         A. Brief Summary of Plaintiff's Mental Health History

         Plaintiff was born in 1965 and served in the military for approximately four years during the 1980s. (Dkt. No. 10, Administrative Record (“AR”) at 198.) At some point after leaving the military, Plaintiff began working as a janitor and in 2000 he began working for the Spring Grove Area School District. (Id. at 44, 206.) The following year he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (Id. at 44.) On September 2, 2011, Plaintiff was hospitalized for management of bipolar mania after he was found by police wandering along a road following an apparent suicide attempt. (Id. at 305-06.) He was hospitalized for a total of eighteen days, including about a week of hospitalization at a hospital run by the Veterans Administration (“VA”). (Id. at 306-07.) Prior to his hospitalization, Plaintiff was experiencing stress from his divorce, financial issues, and difficulty at work. (Id. at 343.) After discharge, Plaintiff returned to living in his mother's home, resumed working, and continued to receive care through a VA outpatient clinic. (Id. at 822-23.)

         On January 25, 2012, he reported discontinuing prescribed medications because they “made him feel ‘cloudy'” and reducing other medication to avoid feeling “hyped up and weird.” (Id. at 558, 565.) In February of 2012, Plaintiff stopped working following an outburst at work that occurred because he “was not feeling well.” (Id. at 537.)

         Following an instance of suicidal ideation, he was again hospitalized on an inpatient psychiatric unit on February 29, 2012. Early in that hospitalization a hearing was held to determine whether Plaintiff would be committed involuntarily. (Id.) Though Plaintiff attended that hearing, he was not able to remember it several days later. (Id.) During his hospitalization Plaintiff received a number of assessments including cognitive assessments which indicated that Plaintiff required 24hour supervision to remove dangerous objects and help him solve problems arising from small changes in his environment. (Id. at 485.) His treatment goals included being able to sustain productivity in a minimally complex task for at least 45 minutes with only minimal redirection and to engage in social conversation without prompting. (Id. at 486.)

         On March 27, 2012, Plaintiff was discharged to a residential program for veterans with severe mental illness at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center (“Coatesville VAMC”). (Id. at 407-08, 483, 610.) At that time, Plaintiff had been hospitalized for a total of approximately 46 days in a seven month period. Plaintiff remained in the residential program at the Coatesville VAMC until November of 2012. While in the residential program at the Coatesville VAMC, Plaintiff was assigned a high risk flag related to suicide risk. (Id. at 1195). The high risk flag was briefly removed from his file only to be reapplied within a week. (Id.). Thereafter, the flag remained on his file for the duration of his placement. (Id.).

         Shortly after arriving in the residential program at the Coatesville VAMC, Plaintiff filed his application for SSDI benefits. (Id. at 198-205.) In an opinion dated May 2, 2012, a state agency reviewing psychologist, Dr. Mitchell Sadar, concluded, without physically meeting or examining Plaintiff, that Plaintiff's mental health issues did not preclude him from working. (Id. at 77.) Dr. Sadar described Plaintiff as having “had a recent mental health related hospitalizations [sic]” and that he had been “fairly stable, and employed up until February, 2012.” (Id.) It is unclear exactly what records Dr. Sadar reviewed before reaching his conclusion or whether Dr. Sadar was aware Plaintiff was hospitalized both in February of 2012 and in September of 2011. At least some documents, including some from an unidentified VA hospital, were received after the date of Dr. Sadar's opinion. (Id. at 72.) One day earlier, on May 1, 2012, a licensed clinical social worker, E. Jerome Sturm, wrote a letter in which he stated that Plaintiff's “mental health condition” prevented Plaintiff from “obtaining gainful employment.” (Id. at 1706.) This letter was not prepared as part of Plaintiff's application for SSDI benefits, and was only provided to the SSA Appeals Council in June of 2015, more than a year after the date of the ALJ's decision.

         One provider who saw Plaintiff while he resided at the Coatesville VAMC, psychiatrist Michael Gliatto, MD, indicated that he could not attest to Plaintiff's ability (or inability) to work, though he opined in a treatment note that Plaintiff might be able to work in a supported employment program. (Id. at 1206.) Dr. Gliatto also observed Plaintiff to be vacant and unable to understand all that was said to him. (Id.) He also suggested Plaintiff's bipolar diagnosis may be a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. (Id.)

         In November of 2012, Plaintiff was discharged from the VAMC Coatsville program. He traveled independently to Massachusetts where he began participating in the Soldier On residential program for homeless veterans at the VAMC in Leeds, Massachusetts. (Id. at 1194.) Plaintiff remained at the Soldier On program for approximately a year. He was hospitalized in connection with psychiatric symptoms again from October 23, 2013 through November 6, 2013. Treatment records from Plaintiff's time with Soldier On indicate that between March of 2013 and October of 2013, Plaintiff lost twenty-two pounds as a result of “involuntary weight loss related to psychological cause (decompensated bipolar disorder), ” causing his weight to fall below target for his height. (Id. at 1488-89.)

         Following his discharge in November of 2013, Plaintiff became a resident of Turner House, a residential program that provides housing and support services for homeless veterans. At the time of his hearing in March of 2014, Plaintiff continued to live at Turner House. Though Plaintiff had assistance filing his application while he was in Pennsylvania, he was unrepresented at the time of the hearing. After taking on his case, his current counsel submitted supplemental materials including a letter from a licensed clinical social worker opining in April of 2012 that Plaintiff's mental health issues prevent him from being employable and progress notes from Turner House. These progress notes document significant ongoing support provided to Plaintiff while he was a resident of Turner House. These progress notes also indicate that the director of Turner House drove Plaintiff to his hearing and was prepared to testify about Plaintiff's limitations. (Id. at 1701.) ...

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