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Hicks v. Astrue

June 16, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge


Plaintiff Christine Hicks brings this action seeking review of the final administrative decision by Defendant Michael J. Astrue, in his official capacity as Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"),*fn1 denying Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSIB") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance. After reviewing the parties' briefs, the administrative record, and the relevant case law, the Court shall DENY Plaintiff's [6] Motion for Judgment of Reversal and shall GRANT Defendant's [10] Motion for Judgment of Affirmance, for the reasons that follow.


A. Legal Framework and Procedural History Plaintiff filed an application for SSIB pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act on May 2, 2001. See Administrative Record ("A.R.") at 22, 109-11.*fn2 To qualify for SSIB, a claimant must demonstrate a disability, which is defined by the Social Security Act as an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." See 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1); id. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). In addition, a claimant seeking SSIB must have a severe impairment that makes him unable to perform past relevant work or any other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. See id. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Substantial gainful work activity is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities and is the kind of work that is usually done for pay or profit. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1472.

In making a disability determination, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is required to use a five-step sequential analysis examining (1) the claimant's recent work activity, (2) the severity and duration of the claimant's impairments, (3) whether the claimant's impairments are medically equivalent to those contained in the Listing of Impairments promulgated by the Social Security Administration, (4) the claimant's residual functional capacity and ability to perform past work, and (5) the claimant's ability to perform jobs reasonably available in the national economy. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see also Brown v. Barnhart, 408 F. Supp. 2d 28, 32 (D.D.C. 2006). At the first step in the analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is working and whether the work is substantial gainful activity; if so, the claim must be denied.

See Brown, 408 F. Supp. 2d at 32. At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairments are severe; if they are not, the claim must be denied. Id. In step three, the ALJ compares the impairments to a listing of impairments that automatically qualify as a disability under the regulations. If the claimant's impairments match those listed, disability is conclusively presumed. Id. If there is no match, the ALJ proceeds to step four and determines whether the claimant has any residual functional capacity to perform his old job. If so, the claim will be denied. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step five and determines whether there is any other gainful work in the national economy that the claimant could perform notwithstanding his disability. Although the claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to the first four steps of the analysis, at step five the burden shifts to the Social Security Administration to demonstrate that the claimant is able to perform "other work" based on his residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience. Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2004). If so, the claim must be denied.

At the time of Plaintiff's hearing, she was a 42 year-old female resident of the District of Columbia. A.R. at 23. Plaintiff has a 12th grade high school education, and her past relevant work includes work as a finance assistant. Id. In her application for SSIB, Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled as of July 1, 1997, due to depression, high blood pressure, a seizure disorder and asthma. Id. at 22, 117. Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 22. Plaintiff requested a hearing, but waived her right to an oral hearing in person before the ALJ. Id. at 22, 72-73.A hearing was subsequently scheduled for March 13, 2003. Id. at 22. Although Plaintiff had waived her right to appear, the ALJ issued a show cause order requiring Plaintiff to explain her failure to appear at the hearing and ultimately dismissed the claim on April 14, 2003. Id. at 61, 81. Plaintiff then requested review by the Appeals Council, which reversed the ALJ's order of dismissal and remanded the case for decision. Id. 100-01. A supplemental hearing was held before an ALJ on January 11, 2005. Id. 22. Plaintiff again waived her right to appear and testify at that hearing. Id. Her attorney was present, however, as was an impartial vocational expert ("VE"). Id. In a decision dated February 1, 2005, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied the requested benefits. See generally id. at 19-31.

At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. Id. at 23, 30. At step two, the ALJ found that the medical evidence indicated that Plaintiff had a seizure disorder and hypertension and that both impairments qualified as "severe." Id. at 27, 30. The ALJ determined at step three that the impairments did not meet or medically equal, either singly or in combination, one of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, No. 4 (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d)). Id. at 27, 30. At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and determined that Plaintiff could not return to her past relevant work. Id. at 28, 31. The ALJ therefore continued on to step five, at which stage he concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing a "reduced range of light level work." Id. at 28, 31. The ALJ noted, however, that Plaintiff's "capacity to perform a full range of light level work is diminished because she requires unskilled work, with a sit/stand option and limited general public contact." Id. at 31. Based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including mail clerk (non postal) and general office helper. Id. 29, 31. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff "is not under a 'disability' as defined in the Social Security Act" and "is not eligible for Supplemental Security Income payments." Id. at 30, 31.

Plaintiff sought again review by the Appeals Council. Id. at 17-18. On October 14, 2005, the Appeals Council issued an order concluding that there was no basis for granting the request for review. Id. at 11-14. Having fully exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed suit in this Court.

B. Evidence Contained in the Administrative Record

The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's conditions based on evidence including various medical records (both physical and mental health records) and the testimony of the VE during the administrative hearing in this case. The Court recounts below the most relevant portions of the administrative record.

1. Medical Records

The medical records indicate that Plaintiff was brought into the Emergency Department at Washington Hospital Center on April 16, 2001, after suffering from a seizure. A.R. at 154-55. Plaintiff reported a history of alcohol abuse and indicated that she had attempted to commit suicide the previous weekend due to the sudden death of her boyfriend. Id. She was diagnosed as having a seizure disorder, most likely alcohol related, and depression due to the loss of her boyfriend. Id. at 156.

Medical records from Fairfax Hospital Admission, dated April 27, 2001, indicate a follow-up visit from Plaintiff, in which she reported a long history of substance abuse problems. Id. at 180. The record show that although arrangements had been made after Plaintiff's April 16, 2001 hospital visit for her to enter a substance abuse program on an outpatient basis, Plaintiff failed to keep the appointment and started drinking again. Id. The attending physician, Dr. Dale A. Harris, noted that Plaintiff had been prescribed Paxil upon discharge from the hospital, but that she reported taking the medication only sporadically. Id. On mental status examination, Dr. Harris reported that Plaintiff was cooperative and able to sit through the interview, that she was not suicidal or psychotic, but that her mood and affect were depressed. Id. at 179. Plaintiff was diagnosed as having "substance abuse mixed." Id.

On July 19, 2001, Plaintiff presented at the Greater Southeast Community Hospital Emergency Department. Id. at 290. She had experienced a seizure, was vomiting, and complained of abdominal pain. Id. at 288, 290. Plaintiff was found to be alert and oriented with no respiratory deficits or musculoskeletal deficits and a normal cardiovascular status. Id. at 298. Her blood pressure was 184/110. Id. She was diagnosed with alcohol withdrawal, vomiting, and seizure, id. at 287, 289, and was reported to have last drank the day before her visit, id. at 294.

Medical records from the Washington Hospital Center show that Plaintiff was admitted shortly thereafter on July 21, 2001, again with abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Id. at 483. She reported drinking heavily for two days prior to admission with worsening abdominal pain. Id. at 486. She further reported a history of alcohol abuse, cocaine use, depression, suicidal ideation, pancreatitis, seizure disorder, and hypertension. Id. Upon physical examination, Plaintiff's blood pressure was 140/100. Id. During her hospital stay, Plaintiff had a seizure witnessed by the medical staff. Id. She was given medications for her seizure disorder and for her abdominal pain. Id. Plaintiff was diagnosed with probable alcohol gastritis, seizure disorder, hypertension, and depression. Id.

On August 8, 2001, Dr. Neil P. Schiff, a licensed psychologist, performed a psychological consultative evaluation. Id. at 365-69. Plaintiff reported that she had suffered from a seizure about two times per month while on medication and had made about 30 post-seizure trips to the hospital in the past year. Id. at 367. She further reported having high blood pressure and asthma. Id. Plaintiff indicated that she was on medication for her seizures as well as for her high blood pressure and asthma. Id. She reported three hospitalizations for depression and suicide attempts, although she denied any present thoughts of suicide. Id. She advised that she was taking medication for her depression, although she was not in therapy. Id. Plaintiff further admitted a history of alcohol and substance abuse, although she represented to Dr. Schiff that she had not used either since 1999. Id. at 368. Dr. Schiff reported that during her interview, Plaintiff was alert and oriented and showed no signs of any psychotic symptoms or thought disorder during the testing. Id. In addition, Dr. Schiff administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Third Edition (WAIS-III) and the Wechsler Memory Scales-Third Edition (WMS-III); she ...

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