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Turner v. Colvin

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 29, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


EMMET G. SULLIVAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Alfelton Turner seeks reversal of the final decision by Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin[1] in her official capacity as Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and for supplemental security income ("SSI") payments. In the alternative, Plaintiff seeks an order to vacate and remand his case to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings. Pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance. Upon consideration of the parties' briefs, the administrative record, and the relevant case law, the Court will DENY Plaintiff's motion to reverse the Commissioner's final decision and GRANT Defendant's motion to affirm the Commissioner's final decision.


Plaintiff is a resident of the District of Columbia. Compl. ¶ 2. On December 2, 2008, Plaintiff filed applications for disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), and for supplemental security income ("SSI") payments under Title XVI of the Act. Administrative Record ("AR") at 13. He alleges disability beginning October 13, 2005. AR at 161. On his disability report, Plaintiff alleged that depression and mood swings limited his ability to work. AR at 173. His applications were denied both initially, AR at 85-91, and upon reconsideration, AR at 96-102.

Once an individual has had a hearing, he may bring a civil action to review the Commissioner's final decision in the district court for the judicial district in which he resides. Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On October 13, 2010, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing at which Plaintiff and a Vocational Expert ("VE") testified. AR at 13, 31. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on November 23, 2010. AR at 26. The Appeals Council denied review on May 11, 2012, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR at 1. Therefore, Plaintiff's claim is ripe for judicial review before this Court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c); AR at 2-3.

A. Legal Framework

1. Defining Disability and Qualifying for Benefits

To qualify for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Act, Plaintiff must first establish that he is "disabled." See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E). Disability is the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable or mental impairment... which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Id. § 423(d)(1)(A); see id. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Plaintiff is disabled "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

2. Sequential Evaluation Process

The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") must conduct a five-step sequential evaluation to assess a claimant's alleged disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2012). The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2004).

First, the ALJ must find that claimant is not presently engaged in "substantial gainful" work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). Second, he must find that claimant has a "severe impairment" that "significantly limits" his ability to do basic work activities. Id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Third, if the ALJ finds that claimant suffers from an impairment that meets one of those listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is deemed disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If claimant's impairment does not meet one of those listed in the Appendix, the ALJ determines his Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") based upon all the evidence of record. Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Once he has made a determination of the claimant's RFC, the ALJ moves on to step four to determine whether his RFC allows him to do work that he used to do, which is called "past relevant work." Id. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant's RFC does not allow him to do past relevant work, the ALJ moves on to step five, where he determines whether the claimant's RFC allows him to adjust to any other work, given his age, education, and work experience. Id. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the ALJ finds that claimant can either perform past relevant work (at step four) or that he can adjust to any other work (at step five), he will find that claimant is not disabled. Id.

B. Factual Background

In making its final decision to deny Plaintiff disability benefits, the ALJ relied on the evidence contained in hearing testimony and the evidence that Plaintiff submitted during his application for benefits, including medical records and evaluations from various doctors. See AR at 13-26.

According to the hearing testimony, Plaintiff was fifty-four years old on October 13, 2005, the date that he alleges onset of disability. See id. at 35-36. Plaintiff was covered by disability insurance through December, 31, 2007. Id. at 36. For approximately two years prior, he had been working to set up and move office furniture. Id. at 35. In October 2005, Plaintiff was sent to prison, id. at 36, for a drug-related violation of his probation, id. at 45-46, 291. After serving two and a half years in prison, he was released in April 2008. Id. at 36, 294-295.

1. Plaintiff's medical records

Plaintiff receives mental health treatment through the Veterans Administration. AR at 34. On June 20, 2008, at his first mental health evaluation subsequent to release from prison, he was diagnosed with moderately severe major depressive disorder, cocaine dependence in remission, alcohol abuse, and adjustment disorder. Id. at 298-299. The evaluation noted that Plaintiff has a history of adjustment disorder and substance abuse, that he briefly attended a substance abuse rehabilitation program in 2003 and 2005, and that he received inpatient psychiatric care in 2004. Id. at 295. Plaintiff admitted to having had a beer that day, and stated he did not need an alcohol recovery program. Id. at 299. He also reported that he was on "red alert" when in public, and suspicious of others because of his military and work experience. Id. at 297.

Plaintiff briefly attended group therapy, but quit because he did not trust people. AR at 288. He began individual psychotherapy with Raphael Mbachu, M.D. in July 2008. Id. at 287-288. At his first visit, he cried "profusely" and complained of lacking motivation, becoming easily frustrated, being irritable, and having erratic sleep with nightmares riddled with violence. Id. at 288. Dr. Mbachu started Plaintiff on Zoloft for depression, Abilify for his mood, and Benadryl for insomnia. Id. at 289.

On August 20, 2008, Plaintiff reported "doing well" and credited the medication for feeling better. AR at 283. His sleep was "restorative, " he said that he had reduced his alcohol intake to two beers a day, and he reported getting along better with his loved one. Id. at 283. He looked forward to going to a job fair the following day. Id. at 284.

At a follow-up visit in September, Dr. Mbachu noted that Plaintiff was "still stabilizing" on his medications. AR at 280. Plaintiff reported "doing fine and sleeping okay." Id. at 279. He did not find the job fair helpful and was worried about his finances. Id. Dr. Mbachu stressed complete abstinence from alcohol. Id. at 280. He also suggested an alcohol rehabilitation program, but Plaintiff declined. Id.

The following month, Plaintiff reported a stable mood, but complained of feeling frustrated for not being able to find a job and feeling financial pressure. AR at 277. He admitted to drinking beer three to four times a week. Id. Dr. Mbachu once again stressed abstinence and suggested alcohol treatment, but Plaintiff declined. Id. By December 22, 2008, Plaintiff reported poor sleep and feeling "in the dumps" for the past two to three weeks. Id. at 274. He denied alcohol use. Id. Dr. Mbachu increased his dosage of Zoloft and Benadryl. Id. at 275.

Hoorie Siddique, Ph.D., conducted a psychological evaluation on behalf of the State agency on January 28, 2009. AR at 237-240. Plaintiff told Dr. Siddique that he consistently had problems getting along with people, particularly with supervisors. Id. at 238. He said he refused all mental health treatment while incarcerated and resumed treatment upon release in 2008. Id. Plaintiff also acknowledged a history of alcohol and crack cocaine abuse and dependence. Id. Based on a range of cognitive tests, Dr. Siddique found that much of Plaintiff's cognitive functioning was intact, with only "mild weaknesses." Id. at 239. He also determined that Plaintiff's memory did not suffer significant damage from substance abuse. Id. He noted that Plaintiff needed ongoing mental health treatment and diagnosed him with alcohol dependence in early partial remission, crack cocaine dependence in sustained full remission, and possible mood and personality disorders. Id. at 240.

Gemma Nachbahr, Ph.D., a State agency psychiatric consultant, evaluated Plaintiff on February 9, 2009. Dr. Nachbahr completed a mental residual functional capacity ("RFC") form and opined that Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning and in maintaining concentration. AR at 251. Dr. Nachbahr concluded that Plaintiff appeared mentally capable of performing work-related activities with sustained abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Id. at 257.

At his next visit with Dr. Mbachu on February 10, 2009, Plaintiff reported "doing okay, " but was bothered by not having a job or money. AR at 270. He reported feeling better in response to the increase in medication. Id.

On April 24, 2009, Plaintiff asked to participate in "CWT, " a job training and matching program for veterans, but was told by his nurse practitioner, Marguerite McGarrah, N.P., that he would first have to complete a substance abuse rehabilitation program. AR at 262. McGarrah reported a "heavy odor" of alcohol on his breath, id. at 264, and opined that she did not think he could work unless he was in a substance abuse program with very frequent toxicology screening tests, id. at 262.

Patricia Cott., Ph.D., a State agency psychologist, evaluated Plaintiff on June 1, 2009 and found that with full and sustained abstinence from substances, AR at 321, he would only have mild limitations in daily activities, social functioning, and concentration, id. at 319.

On June 25, 2009, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Mbachu that he was "holding on" and still had no job. AR at 340. He had run out of medication the month before, and was feeling paranoid. Id. Three months later, he reported that things were slow without a job or income, and that he occasionally found temporary jobs helping people move. Id. at 336. He said that he drank sparingly because he could not afford to drink. Id. Dr. Mbachu encouraged Plaintiff to look for jobs at home improvement stores and food stores as a stocker. Id. at 337. On November 3, 2009, Plaintiff reported "doing well" despite financial difficulties. Id. at 332. He continued to look for a job, ...

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