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Mallard v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

December 10, 2019

RYAN MALLARD, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.



         This is an appeal of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying an application for Social Security disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff Ryan Mallard ("Mallard") appeals the denial on the grounds that it is not supported by substantial evidence under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Compl., ECF No. 1; Mem. Supp. Pl's Mot. Reverse Commissioner's Decision ("Pl's Mem.") 5, ECF No. 22.

         Pending before this Court are Mallard's motion to reverse and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the Commissioner's final decision. Pl's Mot. Reverse Commissioner's Decision ("Pl's Mot."), ECF No. 21; Def.'s Mot. Affirm Decision Commissioner ("Def.'s Mot."), ECF No. 24; Mem. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Affirm Commissioner's Decision ("Def.'s Mem."), ECF No. 25. For the reasons stated below, this Court DENIED the Commissioner's motion to affirm the decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. Order, ECF No. 30.


         Mallard argues that the Social Security hearing officer's decision denying his application for benefits, which the Appeals Council's denial of review made final, see Administrative R., Notice Appeals Council Action 1, ECF No. 19-2, is not supported by substantial evidence. Pl's Mem. 5. Mallard argues that the hearing officer failed (1) to consider important evidence of Mallard's mental health conditions; (2) to accord proper weight to the opinion of his treating physician, instead giving improper weight to his non-treating physicians; (3) to consider Mallard's own testimony; (4) to consider evidence regarding challenges associated with commuting; and (5) fully to consider the vocational expert's testimony. Id. at 7-11.

         A. Procedural History

         On July 6, 2016, Mallard applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits, alleging that he became disabled on July 23, 2015. Administrative R., Ex. 2, Documents Administrative Process, ALJ Hearing Decision ("Hearing Decision") 1, ECF No. 19-2; see also Administrative R., Ex. ID, Application Summary Disability Insurance Benefits ("Application Summary") 1, ECF No. 19-5. The Social Security hearing officer initially denied Mallard's application on August 30, 2016, and then again upon reconsideration on December 6, 2016. Hearing Decision 1. On Mallard's request for a hearing, the hearing officer subsequently held a video hearing pursuant to section 404.936(c) of title 20 of Code of Federal Regulations on June 1, 2017. Id. Mallard, represented by counsel Robert L. Noa, appeared and testified at the hearing. Idw Administrative R., Tr. Oral Hr'g 3, ECF No. 19-2. Michael Laraia, a vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. Hearing Decision 1; Tr. Oral Hr'g 3-4.

         On August 21, 2017, the hearing officer denied Mallard's claim for disability insurance benefits at step five of the sequential evaluation process, finding that Mallard retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Hearing Decision 17-18. On October 3, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Mallard's request for review, AC Denial 1, rendering that decision final and ripe for judicial review, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         On December 8, 2017, Mallard filed a complaint with this Court against Nancy A. Berryhill, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Compl. On May 8, 2018, after a hearing, this Court denied the Commissioner's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Electronic Clerk's Notes, ECF No. 15; Def.'s Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 9.

         On June 17, 2019, Mallard moved for an order reversing the Commissioner's decision. ECF No. 21. On July 29, 2019, the Commissioner moved to affirm the Commissioner's decision. ECF No. 24. This Court heard oral argument on these motions on September 24, 2019 and remanded the case for further proceedings. Electronic Clerk's Notes, ECF No. 29; Order, ECF No. 30. This opinion explains that decision.

         B. Factual Background

         1. Education and Occupational History

         Mallard was born on March 5, 1979 and was 36 years old on July 23, 2015, the alleged onset date of his disability. Hearing Decision 16; see also Application Summary 1. He attended some of high school but did not complete his high school education. Administrative R., Ex. 7F, Office Treatment Records 3, ECF No. 19-9.

         Mallard has previously worked as a security guard and as a sign installer. Hearing Decision 16; see also Administrative R., Ex. 1A, Disability Determination Explanation DIB 14, ECF No. 19-3. As a security officer at Shaw's, Mallard sat in the office, checked the identification documents of incoming customers, and monitored cameras. Tr. Oral Hr'g 7. He also walked around the building to do random checks. Id.

         Mallard worked for Intersection Media for seven years as a sign installer, where he carried a bundle of signs, went to places as instructed, and installed the signs. Id. at 7-9. He also worked as a sign installer for Sign Design, Inc., where he did a lot of lifting and climbing with a ladder to install signs. Id. at 11. He installed all types of signs, including signs up to 100 pounds. Id. Mallard worked as a sign installer through late July 2015. Id. at 11-12.

         2. Physical Impairment

         On July 23, 2015, Mallard suffered an injury to his low back while he was working. Administrative R., Ex. 2F, Inpatient Hospital Records ("Inpatient Hospital Records") 5, ECF No. 19-7. Mallard was carrying sign templates through a door when the templates hit the top of the door frame and caused his body to twist into a painful posture. Id.

         Since this injury, Mallard has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity. Hearing Decision 3; see also Application Summary 1. Mallard has received constant treatment for his ongoing lower back pain since the accident. Hearing Decision 6-7. He was treated with Percocet, Administrative R., Ex. IF, Hospital Records 17, ECF No. 19-7, Meloxicam, Administrative R., Ex. 6F, Office Treatment Records 10, ECF No. 19-9, Oxycodone, id. at 11, and Ibuprofen, Administrative R., Ex. 4F, Office Treatment Records 2, ECF No. 19-8.

         Mallard also suffered right hip fracture in a motor vehicle accident. Hearing Decision 3; Administrative R., Ex. 3F, Progress Notes ("Progress Notes") 2, ECF No. 19-7. On December 18, 2015, Mallard received treatment for the right hip fracture at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Id. He was discharged on December 20, 2015. Id. at 1. Mallard has a history of an abdominal gunshot wound that happened around 2005. Hearing Decision 3.

         3. Mental Impairment

         Since his gunshot wound around 2005, Mallard has suffered a series of mental illnesses, including posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and bipolar. Ex. 7F, Office Treatment Records 1, ECF No. 19-9. Since July 23, 2015, Mallard's mental health deteriorated, and his bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder became exacerbated. Id. at 1, 5. The following is a summary of the records pertaining to the medical treatment, medication management, and hospitalization related to Mallard's deteriorating mental health conditions.

         a) Hospitalization

         Mallard was hospitalized and admitted to Arbour Hospital on November 17, 2015 because of severe depression and suicidal ideation. Inpatient Hospital Records 5. Mallard reported having bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. Id. The hospital record noted that "Mr. Mallard presented with a mixed state of both depression with suicidal ideation and pressured hyperverbal elevated statements about himself." Id. at 6. With treatment, Mallard reported an improvement in his mood and denied suicidal ideation. Hearing Decision 7.

         b) Medication Management by Crystal White

         From May 2016 to April 2017, Crystal White, a nurse practitioner at South Shore Mental Health, managed Mallard's medications. Id. at 9-14. Psychiatric evaluation notes from Crystal White document, inter alia, that Mallard suffered symptoms of paranoia, both visual and auditory hallucinations, depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder, Ex. 27F, Office Treatment Records 28-29, ECF No. 19-15, and that he isolated himself and experienced decreased ability to feel pleasure, id. at 47.

         c) Treatment by Dr. Daniels

         From October 2015 to May 2017, Dr. David Daniels ("Dr. Daniels") at South Shore Mental Health provided regular psychiatric care for Mallard. See Hearing Decision 7-14. Dr. Daniels noted that Mallard reported difficulty with memory and concentration, and that he presented with symptoms including agitation and startle reactions, Ex. 7F, Office Treatment Records 4, ECF No. 19-9, auditory hallucinations, and ongoing panic attacks and nightmares, Administrative R., Ex. 3OF, Progress Notes 5, ECF No. 19-16. Dr. Daniels diagnosed Mallard with bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Ex. 7F, Office Treatment Records 5. Dr. Daniels reported that Mallard's symptoms interfered with his ability to concentrate, interact with others, and cope with stress. Ex. 7F, Office Treatment Records 26. Dr. Daniels also concluded that Mallard's impairments affected his ability to work and that he expected them to last six to twelve months. Administrative R., Ex. 18F, Outpatient Hospital Records 12, ECF No. 19-10.

         d) Evaluation by Dr. Warren

         On August 29, 2016, Dr. John Warren ("Dr. Warren"), an advising psychologist to the Disability Determination Services, on initial consideration of Mallard's application, conducted a medical assessment of Mallard based only on the paper record. Disability Determination Explanation DIB 2-6; see Social Security Handbook § 115.1, (last visited November 14, 2019). This record contained, among other things, hospitalization records and the medical opinions from Dr. Daniels and other physicians. Disability Determination Explanation DIB 2-6. Dr. Warren assessed that Mallard would sustain moderate restriction in maintaining social functioning and concentration or persistence. Id. at 13. Dr. Warren concluded that Mallard, despite the above-mentioned restrictions, could perform simple tasks over a routine workday or week with acceptable attention, persistence, and pace, and could sustain the basic demands related to work by supervisors and co-workers. Id. at 13-14. Dr. Warren ...

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