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Weeks v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 11, 2019

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


          Judith Gail Dein, United States Magistrate Judge


         The 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 to SSDI.

         The 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.


         Weeks 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. (Tr. 173).

         Weeks 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).

         The 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.

         In 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.).

         Weeks 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. (Id.).

         During 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.).

         A 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).

         Emergency 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).

         At a 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] gradually.” (Id.).

         Between 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. (Id.).

         From 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).

         In 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).

         At a 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).

         Weeks was last insured as of June 30, 2013, but she asserts that her disability preceded this date.

         Procedural History

         On 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 ...

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