United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS
REGARDING DENIAL OF SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS
Gail Dein, United States Magistrate Judge
plaintiff, Diane Weeks, has brought this action pro
se, pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), in order to challenge the final
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her claim
for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”)
benefits. The matter is presently before the court on the
plaintiff's “Motion for Order Reversing the
Commissioner's Decision” (Docket No. 15), by which
Weeks requests an order vacating the Commissioner's
decision and remanding the matter to the Social Security
Administration for further administrative proceedings. This
matter is also before the court on the “Defendant's
Motion for Order Affirming the Decision of the
Commissioner” (Docket No. 17), by which the
Commissioner is seeking an order upholding her decision that
the plaintiff is not disabled and is therefore not entitled
principal issue raised by the parties' motions is whether
the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) properly
evaluated the plaintiff's residual functional capacity.
The plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in misconstruing a
family trip as a vacation and failing to consider that she
was self-medicating using alcohol during the relevant period.
The court's inquiry is a limited one that focuses
primarily on whether the ALJ's decision is supported by
“substantial evidence.” Applying the mandatory
standard of review, and as detailed more fully below, this
court concludes that the ALJ's decision was supported by
substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, the
plaintiff's motion to reverse is DENIED, and the
Commissioner's motion to affirm is ALLOWED.
STATEMENT OF FACTS 
was born on April 29, 1960 and was 53 years old as of the
date she was last insured in June 2013. (Tr. 35, 62). She
contends that she has been unable to work since May 2008.
completed high school, attended two years of trade school,
and two years of design school. (Tr. 1091). Weeks worked as a
technical designer in women's apparel until 2004 when she
was let go. (Tr. 36-37, 46). She subsequently performed
freelance work as a technical designer but has not worked
since 2010. (Tr. 46-47). She has three children between the
ages of 16 and 23 and lives with her husband in Sharon,
Massachusetts. (See Tr. 35, 38).
claimant has a history of regular alcohol use dating back to
high school as well as a family history of alcoholism. (Tr.
351, 372). Within a short span of time in 2004, the
claimant's mother died suddenly, her family purchased a
new home without first securing a buyer for their existing
home, and the claimant lost her job. (Tr. 395). As a result
of these stressors, the claimant's alcohol usage
increased substantially to over one bottle of wine per day.
(Tr. 362, 804). Between 2009 and 2012, Weeks visited the
emergency room numerous times for alcohol withdrawal and
repeatedly underwent in-patient alcohol treatment.
March 2009, she was hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal. (Tr.
274). Upon discharge, she was listed as being alert,
cooperative, oriented, in good condition with a fair
rehabilitation potential. (Id.). In August 2009, she
was hospitalized after suffering seizures and falling at
home. (Tr. 275, 278, 315). She denied having symptoms of
depression, other than some problems with motivation and
denied having suicidal ideation or a history of self-harm.
(Tr. 276). She was observed as being calm, cooperative,
alert, oriented, with constricted affect, moderately
dysphoric mood, intact attention and memory, and no apparent
cognitive deficits. (Id.). Her speech was noted as
being coherent and goal-oriented. (Id.). There was
no evidence of delusions or hallucinations and her insight
and judgment were observed as grossly intact. (Id.).
was again hospitalized in September 2009 in connection with
alcohol withdrawal-related seizures. (Tr. 343). Upon
discharge, she was diagnosed with major depression. (Tr.
346). Her mental status was listed as alert and oriented.
(Tr. 347). The claimant was next hospitalized in April 2010.
(Tr. 357). She was described as being “under a lot of
social stress[, ]” being a very anxious person in
general, and being unable to control her anxiety symptoms.
(Id.). During her physical exam, she was observed as
being alert and oriented. (Tr. 358). She was noted as being
“very anxious, ” but answered questions
appropriately and was cooperative throughout the examination.
(Id.). After her discharge from the hospital, she
was admitted to the emergency room later that day upon
experiencing stiffness and shaking of her extremities. (Tr.
365). A mental status examination was conducted and the
claimant was observed to be alert and oriented with a somber
mood and depressed affect. (Id.). She was not
psychotic, had no suicidal ideation, and no homicidal
ideation, although she had “very limited insight into
her alcoholism.” (Id.). The next day, the
plaintiff underwent a mental status assessment as part of
intensive outpatient treatment of her alcoholism.
(See Tr. 464-65). She reported that she handled
anxiety and stress by drinking. (Tr. 465). At the time of the
assessment she reported only mild depression and no anxiety.
outpatient treatment for alcoholism in May 2010, Weeks was
characterized as having slightly elevated levels of anxiety
and a depressed mood, but remained emotionally stable. (Tr.
453). In June 2010, Weeks was admitted to the ER for alcohol
withdrawal. (Tr. 368). She was observed to be alert and
oriented and did not appear intoxicated. (Id.).
mental status assessment of the plaintiff from July 2010
indicates that her memory and thought process were intact.
(Tr. 497-98). She reported moderate depression that had
lasted continuously over the past six months. (Id.).
Her symptoms of depression included poor appetite, loss of
interests, and low energy. (Id.). She also reported
moderate anxiety and admitted that the way she normally
handled anxiety was to take a drink. (Id.). The
clinician noted that Weeks had poor eye contact and her body
language suggested depression. (Tr. 501).
room records from November 2010 indicate that the claimant
was admitted for alcohol withdrawal. (Tr. 370). Her mental
status was observed as “normal, ” with no
hallucinations, delusions, or thoughts of self-harm.
(Id.). Her inpatient hospitalization records from
November 2010 indicate that she was seeing a therapist at the
time of her admission, but was not on any psychiatric
medication. (Tr. 372). During her hospitalization, she denied
having any history of suicidal or homicidal ideation, or a
history of inpatient hospitalization for psychiatric illness.
(Id.). Her mental status exam indicated that she was
well-kempt, cooperative, with good impulse control, euthymic
mood, and a goal-directed thought process. (Tr. 375-76). Her
memory was also listed as being intact, with fair insight and
judgment. (Tr. 376-77).
psychiatric consultation performed on December 9, 2010, the
claimant reported a history of depression, but denied having
severe depression. (Tr. 394). During the consultation, she
claimed not to feel depressed or suicidal, instead feeling
optimistic about the future and remaining sober.
(Id.). A mental status exam revealed that the
claimant was alert, oriented, cooperative, with grossly
intact cognition. (Tr. 396). She also maintained good eye
contact, with an organized thought process, and her mood was
not depressed. (Id.). The clinician conducting her
psychiatric consultation noted that she “does not
currently endorse symptoms suggestive of a major depressive
episode.” (Id.). The clinician acknowledged
that a “substance-induced mood disorder may have been
present, ” but that it “has been resulving [sic]
2010 and 2012, the plaintiff was able to maintain her
sobriety for a period of fourteen months before relapsing
again. (See Tr. 548). She was admitted to the ER in
March 2012 requesting detoxification. (Tr. 441). At the time
she denied any acute psychiatric symptoms or suicidality.
April 2015 to the present, Weeks has maintained her sobriety
and attends Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”) meetings.
(Tr. 42). In the Spring of 2015, Dr. Alexandra Accardi, a
psychiatrist, began treating the claimant for anxiety and
depression. (See Tr. 1002). Dr. Accardi has since
opined that the plaintiff suffers from debilitating
depression, exhibiting paranoid ideations and disorganized
thoughts and speech. (Tr. 1087). Two state agency medical
consultants who evaluated the claimant's disability claim
in late 2015 and early 2016 concluded that the plaintiff
suffers moderate limitations in social functioning and
maintaining concentration as a result of her depression and
anxiety. (Tr. 68-69, 80-81).
August 2016, the claimant was examined by Dr. Barry Roth, who
determined that she suffered from major depression and mild
neurocognitive deficit, and that her mental health issues
interfered with her ability to work. (Tr. 1089-90, 1092). In
early 2017, Weeks was also evaluated by a neuropsychologist
who found that Weeks had severe symptoms of depression and
significant symptoms of anxiety, trauma, and insomnia. (Tr.
1095, 1098). The neuropsychologist further concluded that
Weeks had symptoms consistent with a mild neurocognitive
disorder. (Tr. 1099).
hearing before an ALJ, Weeks testified that she has
difficulty getting out of bed, and that her sister helps her
with grocery shopping, preparing meals, and cleaning the
house. (Tr. 39, 44-45). She reported being unable to
concentrate on reading and having difficulty recalling the
sequence of events in television shows as well as following
instructions. (Tr. 40, 49). Weeks also asserts that she has
difficulty sleeping and often lacks motivation. (Tr. 210-11).
was last insured as of June 30, 2013, but she asserts that
her disability preceded this date.
October 20, 2015, Weeks filed an application for SSDI,
claiming that she had been unable to work since May 10, 2008
due to anxiety and depression. (Tr. 62-63, 173). Her
application was initially denied in December 2015, and upon
reconsideration in January 2016. (Tr. 72-73, 84-85). The
plaintiff subsequently requested and was granted a hearing
before an ALJ, which took place on May 31, 2017 in Boston,
Massachusetts. (See Tr. 30). Weeks, who was
represented by an attorney at the time, appeared and
testified at the hearing. (Tr. 32, 35). The ALJ also heard
testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), who
responded to hypothetical questions aimed at determining
whether jobs existed in the national and regional economies
for an individual with the same age, educational background,
work experience, and residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) as the claimant. (Tr. 51-53). The ALJ
first asked the VE whether jobs existed in the economy that
could be performed by an individual with the same age,
educational background, and work experience as the claimant,
who was “limited to only occasional interaction with
the public, co-workers and supervisors, and would be limited
to the performance of simple, routine and repetitive
instructions, and lastly, . . . would require a position
having only occasional changes in the work environment, and
requiring only occasional decision-making.” (Tr. 52).
The VE responded that such an individual could perform work
as a janitor, laundry aide hospital cleaner, and a
dishwasher. (Tr. 52-53). The ALJ subsequently asked a
follow-up hypothetical, resulting in the following exchange:
Q For my second hypothetical, I'm going to ask you to
assume the criteria of Hypothetical 1, but now I'm going
to ask you to further assume that this individual would miss
two days or more of work per month. These would be unexcused
absences related to anxiety or depression. In ...