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Williams v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Columbia

September 30, 2015

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

          For ELTON WILLIAMS, Plaintiff: Stephen F. Shea, LEAD ATTORNEY, ELKIND & SHEA, Silver Spring, MD.

         For CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Alexander Lee Cristaudo, Lauren Donner Chait, LEAD ATTORNEYS, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Philadelphia, PA.

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         Emmet G. Sullivan, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Elton Williams (" Mr. Williams" ) brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (" the Commissioner" ) denying his claims for Supplemental Security Income Benefits. Pending before the Court are Mr. Williams's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and the

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Commissioner's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance. Docket Nos. 8, 9. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, the administrative record, the governing statutory and case law, and for the following reasons, Mr. Williams's Motion is GRANTED; the Commissioner's Motion is DENIED; and this action is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings in accordance with this Memorandum Opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Elton Williams, born October 18, 1955, is a veteran seeking Supplemental Security Income (" SSI" ) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. (" the Act" ). Mr. Williams has a high school education and no past relevant work experience. Administrative Record (" AR" ) at 53-54. Mr. Williams alleges that he is unable to work due to mental health issues including auditory hallucinations. Id. at 62.

         On April 29, 2011, Mr. Williams was admitted to the Veteran's Administration (" VA" ) hospital in Washington, DC. AR at 494. He reported symptoms consistent with depression and auditory hallucinations instructing him to commit suicide. Id. at 499. Mr. Williams was hospitalized at the VA until May 17, 2011. Id. at 538. Following his release, he was monitored by the VA's suicide prevention program. Id. at 557. Mr. Williams subsequently reported to the VA for bi-weekly injections of risperidone, a psychotropic medication, and to participate in group counseling. Id. at 571, 589. The risperidone injections helped reduce his auditory hallucinations to non-violent whispers. Id. at 59-60, 571. On September 19, 2012, upon a determination that he was no longer considered a high risk, Mr. Williams was released from the suicide prevention program. Id. at 619.

         Mr. Williams lives with his niece in Southeast Washington, DC. AR at 53, 60. His daily activities include preparing food for himself, straitening up the house, and running small errands for his niece. Id. at 60. Mr. Williams is unable to drive due to poor vision, but is able to walk and use public transportation. Id. at 60-61.

         B. Procedural History

         Mr. Williams filed for SSI benefits on February 2, 2011, alleging disability due to mood swings, paranoia, and bipolar disorder.[1] AR at 224. The Commissioner denied Mr. Williams's claims on August 19, 2011 and denied his request for reconsideration on January 12, 2012. Id. at 95-97, 102-05. At Mr. Williams's request, an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) held a hearing on his application on April 22, 2013. AR at 49-71. On April 26, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Mr. Williams was not disabled at any time through the date of his decision. Id. at 28. Mr. Williams's request for Social Security Appeals Council review was denied on March 20, 2014, at which time the ALJ's determination became the " final decision" of the Commissioner for the purposes of judicial review. Id. at 1-5; see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This lawsuit followed.


         A. Standard of Review

         Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act provides for judicial review of " final decisions" of the Commissioner of Social Security. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On review, the court must uphold the Commissioner's determination where it is " supported by substantial evidence" and " not tainted by an error of law." Porter v. Colvin, 951 F.Supp.2d 125, 129 (2013)

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(citing Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121, 264 U.S.App.D.C. 104 (D.C. Cir. 1987)). " Substantial evidence" is " such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 705, 253 U.S.App.D.C. 409 (D.C. Cir. 1986) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)).

         " Even if supported by substantial evidence, however, the court will not uphold the Commissioner's findings if the Commissioner reached them by applying an erroneous legal standard." Jackson v. Barnhart, 271 F.Supp.2d 30, 33 (D.D.C. 2002); see also Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987) (" A factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law." ). To determine whether the Commissioner's decision is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence, the court must " carefully scrutinize the entire record," but " may not reweigh the evidence and replace the [Commissioner's] judgment regarding the weight of the evidence with its own." Jackson, 271 F.Supp.2d 30, 34 (citing Davis v. Heckler, 566 F.Supp. 1193, 1195 (D.D.C. 1983)).

         B. Legal Framework

         To qualify for Supplemental Security Income (" SSI" ) under Title XVI of the Act, the applicant must establish that he is " disabled" as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(1). " Disability" refers to the inability to " engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason for any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a ...

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