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McGehee v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 2, 2019

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


          F. Dennis Saylor IV United States District Judge.

         This is 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.

         McGehee seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision and the Commissioner has moved to affirm. For the reasons stated below, the decision will be affirmed.

         I. Background[1]

         Siobhan 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.).

         After 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.).

         At some point, McGehee enrolled in college as a full-time student. However, she stopped attending classes in April 2017. (A.R. 62).

         At the 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. 66).

         Treatment 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).

         A March 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. (Id.).

         On June 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).

         McGehee 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).

         McGehee 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).

         II. Procedural History

         McGehee 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).

         McGehee 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 ...

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