United States District Court, District of Columbia
REGINALD D. MITCHELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
E. BOASBERG United States District Judge
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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 ...