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Mitchell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 20, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge

         The Acting Commissioner of Social Security determined that Plaintiff Reginald Mitchell is not disabled under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., and is therefore ineligible to receive Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Plaintiff then filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking either a reversal of that decision or a remand to the Social Security Administration for a new administrative hearing.

         Defendant now moves for affirmance of the decision. As the Court agrees that the decision was based on substantial evidence and that any legal error by the Commissioner was harmless, it will grant Defendant's Motion and deny Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff is a 49-year-old man with an eleventh-grade education and no vocational training. See Administrative Record (AR) at 40-41; Pl. Mot. at 2. He was unemployed at the time of the Acting Commissioner's decision and had most recently worked as an attendant in a thrift-clothing store. See AR at 43-44. Mitchell has been diagnosed with depression, asthma, a fractured right ankle, heart flutter, and degenerative-disc disease. See Pl. Mot. at 2. He alleges that these ailments have rendered him disabled since January 1, 2010, thus entitling him to receive disability benefits since that date. Id. at 1.

         In support of his claim, Plaintiff has produced medical records from as early as November 2009. See AR at 264. What follows is not an exhaustive recounting of his treatment history, but rather a summary of the most pertinent facts therein, with separate focus on the physical and mental impairments that are the basis of his alleged disability.

         1. Physical Health

         Mitchell offers few medical records from before 2012 that concern his physical health. As relevant here, those records indicate only that he visited the hospital to refill his asthma medication in June 2011. Id. at 300. During that visit, the doctor characterized Plaintiff's asthma as “mild” and “persistent.” Id.

         In June 2012, Mitchell fell down while intoxicated and suffered a fracture to his right ankle. Id. at 343, 347. He then underwent surgery to repair the ankle about one month later. Id. at 384. In January 2013, an orthopedist affiliated with the District of Columbia Disability Determination Services (DDS) examined Mitchell's ankle in connection with his application for disability benefits. That orthopedist, Dr. Rida Azer, recorded that the ankle was capable of bearing “full weight” and that the fracture “[had] united in excellent position.” Id. at 384-85. Dr. Azer further noted that from “an orthopedic [perspective], ” Plaintiff was capable of performing “regular activities including sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, handling objects, hearing, speaking, and traveling.” Id. at 385. Soon thereafter, a DDS physician consultant reviewed Dr. Azer's report in conjunction with Mitchell's other medical records. Id. (Assessment of Dr. Walter Goo on January 24, 2013) at 91. Based on his review, the physician determined that Mitchell “retain[ed] the capacity to lift 20 [pounds] occasionally” and “10 [pounds] frequently, ” and that he could “stand, walk and sit [for] 6 hours per day.” Id.

         In March 2013, Mitchell visited Dr. Alfred Burris, a cardiological consultant, after receiving abnormal indications from an electrocardiogram. Id. at 443-45. He was later diagnosed with atrial flutter, and in January 2014 a surgeon removed excess tissue from Mitchell's heart in a procedure known as cardiac ablation. Id. at 427-28, 434-439. Dr. Burris examined Plaintiff shortly after the surgery and noted that the examination was “unremarkable” and that Mitchell was “relatively stable.” Id. at 439 (evaluation of Dr. Burris on January 24, 2014).

         Between November 2013 and October 2014, Mitchell visited the hospital on several occasions to receive treatment for physical problems. Id. (Treatment Records from Roseu Medical Center) at 447-59, 505-11. During this period, he was diagnosed with various medical conditions including hypertension, osteoarthritis, hyperlipidemia, and cervical-disc disorder with radiculopathy. Id. at 449. The physician who saw Mitchell during most of these visits, Dr. Uzo Unegbu, recorded in August 2014 that he could “return to work/school . . . without any restrictions.” Id. at 510. On October 17, 2014, during Mitchell's last hospital visit prior to his ALJ hearing, Dr. Unegbu wrote that Plaintiff could return to “full duty at work.” Id. at 506.

         2. Mental Health

         The earliest record of Mitchell's mental-health issues is from November 2009, when a police officer observed him acting “bizarre[ly]” in public and brought him to the emergency room. Id. at 271-72. Personnel there restrained him when he arrived, but released him the same day once he had settled down. Id. at 271.

         The next event in Plaintiff's mental-health records occurred on July 31, 2012, when DDS referred him for an in-person psychological evaluation. The psychologist, Dr. Spencer Cooper, noted that Mitchell “did not manifest any auditory or visual impairment” and that his “speech was appropriate.” Id. at 356. Dr. Cooper also wrote that Mitchell's “capacity for understanding [and memory]” was intact and that he had “diminished” concentration and social skills. Id. at 358. While observing that Mitchell appeared to be “mildly depressed, ” id. at 357, Dr. Cooper also found him to be “cooperative and cordial” and “capable of managing his financial affairs, including the disability benefits if found eligible.” Id. at 357-358.

         A DDS psychological consultant, Dr. Gemma Nachbahr, subsequently reviewed Dr. Cooper's evaluation along with the other evidence concerning Plaintiff's mental functioning on January 24, 2013. Id. at 88-92. Based on her review, Dr. Nachbahr determined that Mitchell had “mild” restrictions on his activities of daily living, “mild” difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and “moderate” difficulties in maintaining his concentration, persistence, or pace. Id. at 89. More specifically, she also recorded that Mitchell would “be able to recall simple and routine information, but have difficulty with detailed/complex information, ” and that he “might have some issues with attention/concentration.” Id. at 92. Dr. Nachbahr ultimately concluded that Plaintiff “appear[ed] mentally capable of performing work-related activities.” Id.

         That same week, Mitchell visited PSI Services, a private provider of mental-health services. Id. (Mental-Health Assessment of January 22, 2013) at 404, 410-14. During this visit, he reported feelings of isolation and loneliness but denied having any recent hallucinations or suicidal thoughts. Id. A psychiatrist from PSI Services diagnosed Mitchell with “Major Depressive Disorder [Not Otherwise Specified]” and referred him to a community-support worker for assistance with medication management and counseling. Id. at 404.

         On August 20, 2014, Mitchell visited PSI Services again and reported that he had experienced hallucinations and feelings of hopelessness. Id. at 478, 483 (noting Plaintiff “state[d] he sees things like figures and shadows move in front of him and hears voices”). PSI Services revised its diagnosis of Mitchell and concluded that he had “Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, Moderate, with Psychotic Features.” Id. at 486. Following this diagnosis, Mitchell continued to visit with his community-support worker at PSI Services. Id. at 476-77. On November 6, 2014, that worker reported that Mitchell continued to need assistance managing his mental health and that he “appear[ed] receptive towards . . . interventions and medication management.” Id.

         B. Procedural Background

         Mitchell first applied for disability benefits more than six years ago. See Def. Opp. at 3 (listing application dates of January 4, 2011, for DIB, and April 13, 2011, for SSI). The Administration initially denied his application on October 14, 2011, given a lack of evidence substantiating his alleged medical impairments. See AR at 71-73 (noting “insufficient evidence” and inability “to obtain the necessary records to make a complete determination”). Mitchell then requested reconsideration of this decision and provided additional evidence. After referring Mitchell for the consultative examinations with Dr. Azer and Dr. Cooper and obtaining the evaluations of Dr. Goo and Dr. Nachbahr, the Administration once again denied his claim for benefits on January 25, 2013. Id. at 106-07. Upon learning of this result, Plaintiff sought and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, which took place on November 24, 2014. Id. at 18.

         Mitchell fared no better there. On February 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application on the basis that he was capable of adjusting to work that “exist[ed] in significant numbers in the national economy” and was therefore not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 30. Mitchell appealed the ALJ's decision to the Administration's Appeals Council, which denied his request for review on April 29, 2016. Id. at 1-3. At this point, the Acting Commissioner's decision became final for purposes of seeking judicial review. Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Having thus exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed this suit challenging that decision. See ECF No. 1 (Complaint).

         II. Legal Standard

         The Social Security Act gives federal district courts the power “to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on substantial evidence in the record and the correct application of the relevant legal standards. Id.; Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004). When the Commissioner's decision evinces legal error, moreover, the court should nonetheless affirm if the error was harmless. E.g., Byes v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 913, 917-18 (8th Cir. 2012).

         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 test “requires more than a scintilla, but can be satisfied by something less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Butler, 353 F.3d at 999 (quoting Fla. Mun. Power Agency v. FERC, 315 F.3d 362, 365-66 (D.C. Cir. 2003)). Finally, determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error requires a court to “carefully scrutinize the entire record.” Davis v. Heckler, 566 F.Supp. 1193, 1195 (D.D.C. 1983) (citation omitted); see also Butler, 353 ...

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