United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
WILLIAM R. AUCHEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION
FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO
AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DKT. NOS. 17 AND
G. MASTROIANNI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.
Brief Summary of Plaintiff's Mental Health History
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.).
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.
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.)
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
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.) ...