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Ali v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 21, 2017

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


          Emmet G. Sullivan, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Khalani Iesha Ali (“Ms. Ali”) brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying in part her claims for Social Security Disability Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits. Pending before the Court are Ms. Ali's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance. ECF Nos. 10, 13. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, the administrative record, the governing statutory and case law, and for the following reasons, Ms. Ali's Motion is DENIED and the Commissioner's Motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Khalani Iesha Ali, born August 25, 1968, is a former retail manager seeking Social Security Disability Benefits (“SSD”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 301 et. seq. (“the Act”). In November 2000, Ms. Ali suffered a gunshot wound to her shoulder following a burglary of her home. AR at 333. In December 2008, Ms. Ali began receiving treatment for anxiety and migraines, among other ailments. Id. at 339. By January 2009, Ms. Ali had reported to her doctor that she experienced constant anxiety which interfered with her life and prevented her from interviewing for new jobs. Id. at 329. In March 2009, Ms. Ali was evaluated for depression and hypomania and diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. Id. at 333. During this time, Ms. Ali became increasingly paranoid that someone would break into her apartment and hurt her again. Id. Ms. Ali periodically suffered from racing thoughts, uncontrollable crying, poor attention and concentration, and frequent angry outbursts. Id. By April 2009, Ms. Ali had returned to work as a store manager. Id. at 335. In April 2010, however, Ms. Ali received a letter from the Victims Against Violent Crimes Program informing her that her assailant would be released from prison in 2015. Ms. Ali stopped working on April 15, 2010 as she became increasingly confused and unable to handle stress at her job. Id. at 323. In March 2012, Ms. Ali began seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Id. Ms. Ali's reports of crying spells and insomnia prompted her psychologist to diagnose her with generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Id. at 499.

         Ms. Ali's mental condition continued to decline. A March 6, 2012 mental status examination revealed that Ms. Ali experienced hypervigilant behavior, a sad, weeping, and labile affect, preoccupation with her attacker's return, poor concentration, poor social judgment, and poor insight. Id. at 327-28. On April 3, 2012, Ms. Ali was evaluated by a psychiatrist who also diagnosed Ms. Ali with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar affective disorder. Id. at 672-76. Throughout 2012 and 2013, Ms. Ali reported to her physicians that she was “reliving the shooting from 2000” and suffering from insomnia because she saw the gun when she closed her eyes. Id. at 588. On April 17, 2012, Ms. Ali's treating psychologist, Dr. Ruth Graves, stated in a letter that Ms. Ali suffered an “emotional setback” in April 2010 after receiving the letter about her assailant's release date and that Ms. Ali has been unable to work due to psychological symptoms. Id. at 383. Dr. Graves recommended that Ms. Ali not return to work for at least one year until the symptoms abated. Id. On April 24, 2012, Ms. Ali's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Tanya Alim, drafted a letter in support of Dr. Graves' opinion, also recommending that Ms. Ali not return to work for one year. Id. at 385. On October 10, 2012, Ms. Ali's treating physician, Dr. Billie Downing, opined that Ms. Ali required “at least 1 year in intensive services” that would prohibit her from working during that time. AR at 468. In May and July 2013, Ms. Ali's physicians diagnosed her with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and severe bipolar disorder. Id. at 678.

         B. Procedural History

         On January 23, 2012, Ms. Ali filed applications for Social Security Disability Benefits (“SSD”) and Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) alleging a disability onset date of April 15, 2010 - i.e., the date on which she stopped working. AR at 54, 64, 174-208. Ms. Ali's claims were denied after initial review and again upon reconsideration because the Commission determined that her condition was not so severe as to prevent Ms. Ali from working. Id. at 102-105, 108-114. On September 19, 2013, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) issued a partially favorable decision finding that Ms. Ali was disabled beginning on March 1, 2012 but not before. Id. at 13-31. Id. The ALJ based his decision on a consideration of Ms. Ali's medical records, the opinions of her treating physicians, the evaluations of State Agency consultants, and the testimony of a vocational expert who opined that prior to March 1, 2012, Ms. Ali could have found a job as an assembly worker, a packaging worker, a quality control worker, or a small parts inserter. Id. at 17-25. Due to the ALJ's decision, Ms. Ali has been receiving disability insurance since March 1, 2012. On November 29, 2013, Ms. Ali sought review from the Appeals Council of the portion of the ALJ's decision that found her not disabled between April 2010 and March 2012. On December 20, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review, which decision is the subject of this action for judicial review. Id. at 1-5.


         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 (D.D.C. 2013) (citing Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (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 (D.C. Cir. 1986) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The substantial evidence test “requires more than a scintilla, but can be satisfied by something less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (quoting Florida Mun. Power Agency v. F.E.R.C., 315 F.3d 362, 366 (D.C. Cir. 2003)). This standard “entails a degree of deference to the Commissioner's decision.” Jackson v. Barnhart, 271 F.Supp.2d 30, 33 (D.D.C. 2002).

         “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.” Id.; 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 at 34 (citing Davis v. Heckler, 566 F.Supp. 1193, 1195 (D.D.C. 1983)). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained “even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's].” Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F.Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992).

         B. The Social Security Act

         To qualify for disability benefits under Title II, the Commissioner must find that the applicant has a “disability” as defined in the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.315. The Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which...has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505. The same definition of ...

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