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Hosseini v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

December 17, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Farah Hosseini (“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 (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits. Currently pending are Claimant's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision denying her disability benefits, [ECF No. 18], and the Commissioner's cross-motion for an order affirming the decision, [ECF No. 20]. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's decision was supported by substantial evidence and therefore DENIES Claimant's motion to reverse and remand and ALLOWS the Commissioner's motion to affirm.

         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 SSDI benefits program, which provides disability insurance for covered workers, and the Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) program, which assists 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 “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. 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:

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 disability insurance benefits on September 20, 2014. [R. 203-210].[1] She alleged that she became disabled on June 15, 2012, due to a combination of mental health disorders and chronic pain. [R. 203, 223]. Her date last insured was December 31, 2017. [R. 21].

         Claimant's application was reviewed initially and on reconsideration by different teams, each including a medical professional and a disability specialist; both teams determined that she was not disabled. [R. 100-11, 113-28]. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) first informed Claimant that her application had been denied on December 19, 2014. [R. 132]. Claimant requested reconsideration of her application on December 29, 2014, [R. 135], and the SSA informed her of its denial upon reconsideration on April 6, 2015, [R. 136-138]. Thereafter, Claimant requested an administrative hearing, which was held on September 2, 2016 before Administrative Law Judge Sean Teehan (“ALJ”). [R. 20]. The ALJ issued a decision finding that Claimant was not disabled on September 26, 2016. [R. 33]. The SSA Appeals Council denied Claimant's Request for Review on September 13, 2017. [R. 1-5]. On November 14, 2017, Claimant filed a complaint with this Court, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to section 205(g) of the Act. [ECF No. 1]. On April 30, 2018, Claimant filed her motion for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner that is before the Court, [ECF No. 18], and the Commissioner filed her cross-motion on June 11, 2018, [ECF No. 20].

         Claimant makes two arguments for reversing the Commissioner's decision. First, she claims that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the effect of her mental impairments; second, she claims that the ALJ's credibility assessment was deficient because it failed to consider her exemplary work history. [ECF No. 19]. The Court will focus on the Claimant's employment background and mental impairments in providing an overview of this case, though the Court recognizes and has considered the physical impairments evidenced by the record and recognized by the ALJ's decision.

         C. Employment Background

         Claimant was born on October 21, 1960 and was 55 years old when the ALJ's decision was issued. [R. 33, 203]. She immigrated to the United States from Iran in the mid-1980s, and received an associate degree in computer science from Bunker Hill Community College. From the early 1990s until 2012, Claimant worked in various information technology jobs and had covered earnings in all but one year. [R. 46-58, 64, 212-13, 224]. Her earnings peaked at more than $90, 000 in 1999. [R. 212]. Claimant most recently worked part-time as a consultant for a Boston law firm, but the firm's need for her services ceased in mid-2012, and she has not worked since. [R. 58, 224]. Claimant lives with her husband in a multifamily home from which she derives some income in Reading, Massachusetts. [R. 47, 65].

         D. Medical Evidence

         Claimant has a history of depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence. [R. 368, 377]. In October 2012, Claimant was diagnosed with depressive disorder and alcohol dependence and was hospitalized at North Shore Medical Center for detoxification and to help with her depression. [R. 289-97]. Claimant reported that she felt “extremely depressed and ha[d] been drinking a bottle of wine and some vodka daily.” [R. 295]. Claimant was admitted to a partial hospitalization program at Addison Gilbert Hospital in October 2012 and again in August 2013. [R. 304-26]. When she was discharged in August 2013, Claimant was found to be on track with her treatments. [R. 309].

         In December 2014, Claimant was evaluated by psychologist Dr. James Munroe and diagnosed with alcohol use disorder and major depressive mood. [R. 367-71]. Claimant had a depressed mood, diminished interest in almost all activities, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, and diminished ability to concentrate and make decisions. [R. 371]. Dr. Munroe's prognosis for Claimant was “poor, ” and he found that Claimant's depression and alcohol use were longstanding and chronic. Although Claimant had no psychomotor agitation, retardation, suicidal ideation, her insight and judgment were intact, she completed her activities of daily living in a timely manner, was able to reason and manage complicated family issues, and her understanding and memory were intact despite her being anxious and somewhat distracted, Dr. Munroe concluded that she could benefit from more extensive mental health treatment. [R. 367-72].

         Periodic treatment records from 2015 also show Claimant had problems with alcohol abuse, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder. [R. 373-485; 500-41]. Claimant was admitted to Bayridge Hospital for her mental impairments and substance abuse on May 12, 2015, [2] and received treatment from Lahey Health Inpatient Behavioral Health Services beginning on May 27, 2015 for post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism issues, and what she described as “sleeping issues, difficulty breathing, feeling sad and hopeless about her future and difficulty concentrating.” [R. 486-94, 497, 551-61]. As of June 23, 2015, Claimant was taking medications for her conditions but was nonetheless experiencing anxiety, depression, and issues with alcohol consumption. [R. 551-52]. It was recommended that she attend group and individual therapy. [R. 559]. Progress notes from Lahey Health demonstrate that Claimant attended an outpatient program, received acupuncture, and found both helpful. [R. 580]. She was able to decrease her alcohol consumption throughout June, July and August of 2015. [R. 583, 591-94].

         In March 2016, Claimant had a psychiatric evaluation for assessment and management of alcohol abuse, anxiety, and depression. [R. 645]. Claimant reported that since May 2015, she had been doing better and not abusing alcohol, and that she had stopped taking her medication in January 2016. [R. 645]. Thereafter, multiple individuals close to Claimant died, including a best friend and a sister-in-law, and her mother had a stroke. [R. 645]. Claimant increased her alcohol intake in January and February 2016 and was drinking a couple times per week, about 5 drinks of vodka each time. [R. 645]. Claimant had no thoughts of hurting herself or anyone else, her appetite and energy were normal, but ...

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