United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO
REVERSE AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM DECISION OF
Dennis Saylor IV United States District Judge.
an appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (“SSA”). On
February 7, 2018, the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) issued a decision concluding that
plaintiff Siobhan McGehee is not disabled. The SSA Appeals
Council declined review on May 13, 2018. McGehee then filed
an action with this Court.
seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision and the
Commissioner has moved to affirm. For the reasons stated
below, the decision will be affirmed.
McGehee is a 36-year-old veteran of the United States Marine
Corps. (A.R. 58). She served in the military from 2006 to
2010, including two tours of duty in Afghanistan. (A.R. 58,
386). While in the military, she was exposed to combat and
was the victim of sexual harassment. (A.R. 58, 385). She was
the only woman in her unit and began abusing alcohol in order
to “keep up with the men.” (A.R. 405, 985). She
has a history of self-injury and attempted suicide in 2008
while in the Marines. (A.R. 406). She attempted suicide again
in 2010 and 2013. (Id.).
her service in the Marine Corps, McGehee worked as a
litigation assistant in 2012 and 2013. (A.R. 68). In March
2015, she began working 24 hours per week after attending a
vocational skills group and completing a vocational
assessment at the REACH program at the Boston Veterans
Affairs (“VA”) Medical Center. (A.R. 15). In
April 2015, she increased her work hours to 32 hours per
week, but then decreased them back to 24 hours in May 2015 in
order to find an apartment. (Id.). Her hours were
increased again as of June 2015. (Id.).
point, McGehee enrolled in college as a full-time student.
However, she stopped attending classes in April 2017. (A.R.
time of the hearing, McGehee lived alone in an apartment and
spent her time watching television, doing puzzles, going on
Facebook, and caring for her service dog. (A.R. 60, 66-67).
She testified that, at the time of the hearing, her service
dog had been with her for six years. (A.R. 65). She testified
that her service dog calmed her down when she got anxious and
helped her leave the house. (A.R. 73). She testified that she
always had her dog with her when she left the house.
(Id.). On a typical day, she woke up around 10:00 am
and took the dog out, fed him, and fed herself. (A.R. 64-65).
She would then try to go to the gym or would take long walks
with the dog to get out of the house. (A.R. 65). At another
point during the hearing, she testified that she normally
went to the gym by herself. (A.R. 75). She further testified
that she went grocery shopping about once a week and was
“[s]ometimes” accompanied by her service dog.
(Id.). She reported that she was able to keep up
with self-care, but household tasks such as laundry, dishes,
and vacuuming were difficult to keep up with at times. (A.R.
notes reflect that McGehee often, but not always, brought her
dog with her to medical appointments. (See, e.g.
A.R. 404, 451, 467, 494, 519, 581, 645, 650, 789, 835, 848,
860, 866, 871, 1141, 1147, 1161). At times, medical providers
referred to her dog as a “service dog” or a
“therapy dog.” (See id.). For example,
during an initial evaluation with Rebecca Norris-Bell, Ph.D.
at the Boston VA Medical Center in August 2015, Dr.
Norris-Bell noted that McGehee “cares for her therapy
dog” and that “[h]er dog was present during [the]
exam.” (A.R. 404). However, at an intake assessment
with Heather Nelson, LICSW at the General Mental Health
Clinic at the Boston VA in November 2015, Nelson noted that
McGehee “spen[t] her days walking her service dog,
working out and ‘keeping busy with anything,
'” but did not indicate that she had brought the
service dog to the appointment. (A.R. 844-45).
8, 2017 inpatient note from a detox program reflects
McGehee's statement that she “has a service dog who
she has left with a friend to care for while she is
hospitalized.” (A.R. 720). An inpatient note from the
following day stated she “was in the process of
deciding on CIRCA or a residential program in Palo Alto as
she has no one to take care of her dog in MA for that long a
period” but “CIRCA ha[d] allowed service dogs to
accompany veterans to program before.” (A.R. 702). She
further noted that she was “concerned about leaving her
dog with a friend over the weekend” because she only
packed three days' worth of supplies for the dog.
1, 2017, McGehee began a residential treatment program for
substance abuse at the VA Medical Center in Palo Alto,
California. (A.R. 1233-34). She reported to a treatment
provider there that Boston-area VA programs would not allow
her to bring her service dog, so she returned to California
for her parents to care for her dog if she was admitted to a
residential program. (A.R. 1234). When she went to the Boston
VA emergency department requesting alcohol detoxification in
December 2017, her provider noted that she had her service
dog with her, and that arrangements would need to be made for
its care if she was admitted. (A.R. 1154). The dog was
described as a “large unleashed Doberman
Pinscher.” (A.R. 1155). When she again visited the VA
emergency department for alcohol detoxification a few days
later, she had her dog at her bedside. (A.R. 1147).
also discussed her dog in her adult function reports. (A.R.
260, 310). In an April 2016 function report, she reported
that on a typical day, she woke up and walked her dog, got
dressed, went to school for a couple of hours, went to the
gym, and then came home and took care of her dog and did
homework. (A.R. 260). In another function report, she
reported that she has an “emotional support dog”
that she takes on walks every day. (A.R. 311).
also sought VA disability benefits. She was initially awarded
a 60% service-connected VA disability rating, with 30%
assigned for chronic adjustment disorder and 10% each
assigned for limited motion of wrist, degenerative arthritis
of the spine, traumatic brain injury, tinnitus, and hiatal
hernia. (A.R. 386). As of March 2017, her VA rating was
increased to 80%, with 70% assigned for PTSD and 10% each
assigned for limited motion of wrist, degenerative arthritis
of the spine, tinnitus, hiatal hernia, and migraine
headaches. (A.R. 721).
filed a claim for disability benefits on December 18, 2015,
alleging disability beginning June 15, 2010. (A.R. 85, 232).
At some point, she amended her alleged onset date to June 30,
2013. (See, e.g. A.R. 15, 21, 87, 99, 236, 243,
278). The SSA denied her application initially on May 24,
2016, and upon reconsideration on July 19, 2016. (A.R.
85-108). On July 26, 2016, she requested a hearing, which was
held on January 10, 2018. (A.R. 118-19, 53-84). On February
7, 2018, the ALJ found her to be not disabled. (A.R. 7-45).
requested a review of the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 51-52).
On May 13, 2018, the Appeals Council declined to review the
decision and adopted it as the final decision of the
Commissioner. (A.R. 1-6). McGehee filed this complaint on
December 10, 2018, to review the ...