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Holland v. Berryhill

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 29, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge


         Plaintiff Anthony Holland unsuccessfully applied for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. After an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) rejected his application, Mr. Holland sought review of that decision from this Court. After the Court referred this case to Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson for full case management, Magistrate Judge Robinson recommended that the Court affirm the ALJ's denial of benefits. Because the Court agrees with Magistrate Judge Robinson's conclusions, the Court will adopt the report, grant the Defendant's motion for affirmance, and deny Mr. Holland's motion for reversal.


         A. Administrative Proceedings

         Mr. Holland applied for SSI benefits in 2010. Compl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 3-2; AR 142, 302, ECF No. 10. He reported that he suffers from “severe bipolar disorder . . . and post-traumatic stress disorder, which was exacerbated by sexual and physical assault as a child, assaults and gang rape as an adult in prison, and nearly eight years spent in solitary confinement.” See Pl.'s Mot. J. Reversal at 1, ECF No. 13.[2] Mr. Holland's application was denied initially and again on reconsideration. Pl.'s Mot. J. Reversal at 1. The first hearing took place on June 19, 2012. Id. On July 24, 2012, ALJ Larry Banks denied Mr. Holland's claim, finding that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.[3] AR 149. Mr. Holland successfully administratively appealed, [4] so ALJ Banks held another hearing on May 1, 2014. Pl.'s Mot. J. Reversal at 2. On June 27, 2014, the ALJ again denied Mr. Holland's claim, but this time the Appeals Council affirmed the denial. Id.

         In the second hearing, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled, as outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). AR 11-12. As a general matter, “[t]he law defines disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . . To meet this definition, [the claimant] must have . . . severe impairment(s) that make[] [him] unable to do . . . any . . . substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The ALJ found that Mr. Holland has multiple severe impairments-namely, degenerative disc disease and bipolar disorder with generalized anxiety. AR 13. However, he concluded that Mr. Holland's impairments, when considered together or alone, do not meet or medically equal the severity of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 13. In making this determination, he gave “little weight” to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, because his opinion was “inconsistent with the findings of all other providers, . . . inconsistent with his own treatment notes, and . . . not supported by any current treatment notes.” AR 18. The treating physician, Dr. Trower, began treating Mr. Holland in February 2011. AR 16. During a January 2012 mental status examination, Dr. Trower reflected in her notes that Mr. Holland had “good hygiene and neat appearance, ” “normal” speech, “cooperative and friendly” demeanor, “euthymic”[5] mood, and full affect, and “goal directed and logical” thought process. AR 580-81. Her notes also “consistently show[ed] that [Mr. Holland] was stable on medication.” AR 18, 584-85, 589-96. In February 2014-over two years after she had last conducted a mental status examination of Mr. Holland-Dr. Trower opined that Mr. Holland could not work because he had depression and trouble maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. AR 715-16.

         Other doctors had a different take. Dr. Jaffe examined Mr. Holland in September 2010, at which time Mr. Holland stated that he could not find work because he is an ex-convict. AR 531. Dr. Jaffe concluded, based on a mental status examination, that Mr. Holland had only slight limitations when it comes to “work pressures in a usual work setting.” AR 535-38. In October 2010, reviewing the work of Dr. Jaffe, state medical consultant Dr. Murphy reached a similar conclusion; he opined that Mr. Holland “could be expected to complete a normal workweek without exacerbation of psychological symptoms, ” and “retains the ability to perform repetitive work activities without constant supervision.” AR 543. Another doctor, Dr. Kaiser, reached a similar conclusion around the same time. AR 570-71. Some psychiatric treatment notes from April through June 2013 that do not indicate the specific provider document normal mental status findings. AR 16, 699-701. In January 2014, Mr. Holland was examined by Dr. Wangard. AR 610. After conducting a mental status examination, Dr. Wangard concluded that Mr. Holland's mental status was within normal limits, that he had “no limitation in his ability to follow and understand simple directions, . . . to perform simple tasks independently, to maintain a regular schedule, to learn new tasks, to perform complex tasks independently, to make appropriate decisions, or to appropriately deal with stress.” AR 613-14. Dr. Wangard also noted that he had no limitations with respect to social interaction or adaptation. AR 614.

         ALJ Banks credited the group of doctors who indicated that Mr. Holland's impairments were relatively mild. AR 17-18. He gave “great weight” to Dr. Jaffe and Dr. Wangard, because they were “thorough and objective” and consistent with each other despite being conducted four years apart. AR 17. He also found that their opinions were consistent with Mr. Holland's testimony that he is better able to focus while on his medication. AR 17. He also gave “great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Murphy, because it was based upon the opinions of Dr. Jaffe. AR 17. He gave “little weight” to Dr. Trower's 2014 opinion, because it was inconsistent with the other providers, not supported by her own treatment notes at the time of her evaluations of Mr. Holland, and not supported by any current treatment notes. AR 18.

         ALJ Banks also discounted Mr. Holland's own testimony, much of which the ALJ said was unsupported by “objective documentation to support limitations beyond what is in the given residual functional capacity.” AR 18. ALJ Banks emphasized that while Mr. Holland testified that he “suffers from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, ” he also stated that his medicine makes him “feel[] calmer, more focused, and [makes him] able to sleep.” AR 15. This, ALJ Banks reasoned, was consistent with Dr. Trower's notes that he is stable while on his medication. AR 16, 584-85, 589-96. Without his medicine, Mr. Holland stated that he is “irritable, sarcastic, paranoid, and has violent thoughts, ” and to cope with his confrontational attitude, he stays in his room. AR 15. ALJ Banks emphasized that, “[i]n terms of daily activities, [Mr. Holland] testified that he takes care of his hygiene and grooming, prepares meals, goes to [Alcoholics Anonymous] and [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings as well as church, takes naps, checks his mail, checks with the staff at his [residential program for homeless individuals] if they would like him to do a chore, . . . [and] enjoys playing chess and going for walks on nice days.” AR 15. Mr. Holland also testified that he at one point lived with his girlfriend, and maintained a positive relationship with her. AR 16. From these activities and relationships, ALJ Banks concluded that Mr. Holland “experiences good benefit from his medications, ” and that this is “supported by objective clinical records.” AR 18. The ALJ concluded that Mr. Holland has the functional capacity to perform light work because, in his opinion, Mr. Holland has only moderate difficulties in daily living, social functioning, and concentration, AR 13, and the negative effects of his impairments are reduced by his medication, AR 15.[6]

         ALJ Banks posed four hypotheticals to the Vocational Expert (VE) during the hearing, in response to which the VE suggested that there are jobs in the national economy that Mr. Holland could hold, in light of his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, in part because his impairments would only lead him to being off-task for five percent of the workday.[7] AR 14-15, 78-82. However, the VE stated that if Mr. Holland were off-task for twenty percent of the day, there would not be jobs available in the national economy. AR 82. Mr. Holland's attorney posed a fifth hypothetical based on Mr. Holland's testimony that he “continuously question[s] peoples' motives . . . [and] feels the need to retreat” for days at a time, requiring him to “stay in [his] room most of the day.” AR 87-88. The VE responded that no jobs would be available to such a person, because, just as with the ALJ's fourth hypothetical, this would require the person to be off-task for twenty percent of the time or more-indeed it would require him to be off-task almost all of the time. AR 88.

         B. Magistrate Judge Robinson's Report and Recommendation

         Mr. Holland sought this Court's review of the ALJ's decision in accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1361, 1383(c)(3). Compl. ¶ 1. He moved for reversal of the ALJ's decision on the grounds that ALJ Banks did not give adequate weight to the opinion of Mr. Holland's treating physician, and erred in varying ways in his application of the five-step evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. Pl.'s Mot. J. Reversal, ECF No. 13. Defendant moved for affirmance. Def.'s Mot. J. Affirmance, ECF No. 14. The Court referred the case to Magistrate Judge Robinson for full case management. Order Referring Case to Magistrate Judge, ECF No. 12.

         Magistrate Judge Robinson recommended that the ALJ's opinion be affirmed. Report & Recommendation (“R&R”) at 18, ECF No. 19.[8] In doing so, Magistrate Judge Robinson found that ALJ Banks's “decision to not give controlling weight to the opinion of . . . [the] treating physician[] was supported by substantial evidence, ” R&R at 7, because the ALJ credited the testimony of four doctors whose opinions conflicted with the testimony of the treating physician, and because the last mental examination by the treating physician occurred in January 2012- over two years prior to the hearing. See R&R at 8-9. Magistrate Judge Robinson also found that, because the ALJ found that Mr. Holland would only be off-task for around five percent of the ...

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