United States District Court, District of Columbia
G. Sullivan, United States District Judge
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.
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
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.
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.
Standard of Review
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).
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).
The Social Security Act
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