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Walker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 30, 2017

LEONA WALKER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Leona Walker (“Ms. Walker” or “Claimant”) brings this action pursuant to section 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 (the “Commissioner”) denying her claims for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. Currently pending are Claimant's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision denying her disability benefits [ECF No. 16], and the Commissioner's cross-motion for an order affirming the decision. [ECF No. 22]. For the reasons described herein, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's decision was not supported by substantial evidence and therefore VACATES the decision of the Commissioner and REMANDS the case for further administrative proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         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 that 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(a).

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

All 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

         Claimant filed her application for SSI and SSDI benefits on March 11, 2014. [R. 21].[2]She alleged that she became disabled on December 1, 2013, due to various psychiatric disorders including borderline personality, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress (“PTSD”), and major depressive disorders, as well as delayed sleep phase syndrome. [R. 24, 317, 325]. Her date last insured was December 31, 2015. [R. 39-40].

         The Social Security Administration (the “SSA”) denied Claimant's applications for SSI and SSDI benefits on June 20, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on August 8, 2014. [R. 21]. Thereafter, Claimant requested an administrative hearing, and a hearing took place before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Paul Carter on September 8, 2015. [R. 21, 30]. Claimant, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. [R. 21]. On October 19, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Claimant was not disabled. [R. 30]. The SSA Appeals Council denied Claimant's Request for Review on August 31, 2016 [R. 1]. On September 29, 2016, Claimant filed a timely complaint with this Court, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to section 205(g) of the Act. [ECF No. 1].

         C. Factual Background

         Claimant was born on May 15, 1967. [R. 44]. She is unmarried and has no children. [R. 45]. Claimant currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts. [R. 43]. She holds a college degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. [R. 45-46]. She began to pursue a Master's degree, but never completed her studies. [R. 46].

         Claimant has worked as a cashier or retail sales clerk on six different occasions from 2008 to 2013, never for more than six months at a time. [R. 227]. Claimant also worked as an intern for a housing program for one to two months in 2009, as a clerk for the Department of Revenue for three months in 2007, and as a substitute teacher for two periods of three to four months in 2007. [R. 46, 227].

         D. Medical Evidence

         1. Record Evidence

         Claimant's medical records begin in 2011. At that time, she had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder by two health care providers, Dr. Eugene Uzogara, MD, and Edwige Berrouet, Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (“LICSW”). [R. 325-26, 329-34, 337]. Each doctor assessed Claimant's Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”), and each assigned Claimant a GAF of 55, noting that previously, her highest GAF score within the past year was 50.[3] [R. 326, 331]. In April of 2011, Berrouet described Claimant as “irritable, angry, and tired, ” and noted that she was having problems with sleep, had “issues” with friends and family, and held a negative worldview. [R. 379]. Later in April of 2011, Berrouet continued to describe Claimant as irritable, angry, sleep deprived, and paranoid, with a “very negative worldview.” [R. 435].

         In July of 2012, Claimant visited Dr. Nishi Bhopal, MD, a sleep medicine fellow at a sleep clinic, due to her difficulty sleeping, which she had experienced since age 13 or 14. [R. 315, 318]. Claimant reported that when she is awake for over 18-24 hours, her sleep deprivation results in hallucinations, anxiety, paranoia, jitters, and irritability. [R. 315-16]. Claimant also told Dr. Bhopal that she had been unemployed since she was fired from her job in October of 2011 due to customer complaints regarding her irritability. [R. 316]. Dr. Bhopal diagnosed Claimant with delayed sleep phase syndrome and bipolar disorder. [R. 317-18]. Claimant reported ...

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