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Harris v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division, Dayton

January 10, 2020



          Sharon L. Ovington United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Cheryl Harris seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final administrative determination denying her application for Supplemental Security Income. She has filed applications twice. The Social Security Administration granted her first one, and she received benefits from at least the mid-1990s through 2009. (Doc. #8, PageID #1025). Her benefits stopped-not because her health improved but-because she was sent to prison. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382(e)(1)(A) (no person is eligible for Supplemental Security Income during months he or she “is an inmate of a public institution.”).

         Plaintiff was released from prison in 2014. She protectively filed her second application for Supplemental Security Income on February 6, 2014, asserting she had been under a disability since 1995.[1] See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(j)(1). Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mark Hockensmith found that she was not disabled and consequently denied her second application for Supplemental Security Income.

         Plaintiff finds many flaws in ALJ Hockensmith's decision. She argues, in part, that he failed to reasonably account for the Administration's previous award of disability benefits to her. She also contends that the ALJ failed to adequately weigh the opinions of her treating physicians. She seeks an Order remanding this case for an immediate award of benefits rather than for further proceedings.

         The Commissioner finds no error in the ALJ's decision and argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings. The Commissioner seeks an Order affirming the denial of Plaintiff's second application for Supplemental Security Income.

         II. “Disability” Defined

         Plaintiff's eligibility to receive Supplemental Security Income centered on whether she was under a “disability” as defined by social security law. See 42 U.S.C. § 1381a; see also Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470 (1986). Narrowed to its statutory definition, a person is under a disability when her long-lasting (at least one year) “medically determinable physical or mental impairment” prevents her from engaging in “any substantial gainful activity.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 602 (6th Cir. 2009).

         III. Background

         A. Plaintiff and Her Testimony

         Plaintiff was a “younger” person (forty-eight years old) when she filed her second application for Supplemental Security Income. When she turned age fifty, she aged into the Administration's category of a person “closely approaching advanced age.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(d). She holds a high-school GED but has no significant work experience, at least since 1999. (Doc. #6, PageID #s 77, 224, 239).

         Plaintiff testified during her administrative hearing that upon her release from prison, she underwent a psychiatric evaluation and ultimately began treatment with psychiatrist Ritesh Kool, MD and in a program known as the Consumer Advocacy Model. Plaintiff told the ALJ that she began mental-health treatment because she had been “a little unstable all her life…, so she knows she needs treatment in order to function properly.” Id. at 78. She participated in weekly group therapy in a woman's group because she “had a lot of sexual abuse as a child…, and it was like a processing group.” Id. at 79.

         Plaintiff informed the ALJ that she began treatment with the Cornerstone Project in June 2015. Id. at 80. Later, in December 2015, she began twice weekly treatment in the MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment) Program.[2] Id. When asked what this involved, she said, “That is a lot of drug and alcohol stuff.” Id. She was also having one-on-one counseling during which they talk about her personal issues that could have caused her drug and alcohol use. Id.

         The mental-health treatment she received after leaving prison made her feel less angry, but she still had a lot of problems with depression. Id. at 81. She has times when she just wants to “sleep and sleep and sleep for days on end.” Id. In the past, she used drugs to help bring herself out of depression. She told the ALJ that she was fighting against “the using of drugs-illegal drugs.” Id. She will go through this fight against illegal drug use and depression two or three times a month, but sometimes an episode will last two weeks. She noted, “I don't even want to get up and eat, shower, or anything.” Id.

         Plaintiff she lived by herself in an apartment. Id. at 71. She testified that she does not really have friends and does not want to be around other people. Id. at 90. She explained:

It makes me uncomfortable. I mean, I don't trust people…, I feel like people … always have an ulterior motive, you know what I mean? Like they're there because they're going to try and get-rob me or steal something, take my Suboxone, something, there's always something ….

Id. at 90. Plaintiff also has problems with concentration. She has trouble reading and remembering what she's read. She explained, “Sometimes I can be talking to somebody and I don't even know what they're saying, I'll be looking at them, I don't even know, I don't even hear them.” Id. at 91.

         Plaintiff's physical health problems include obesity-she is 5'9” inches tall and weighs 250 pounds. Id. at 71. She easily gets short of breath and uses a rescue inhaler a couple of times each day, especially when she walks. Id. at 84-85. She typically walks a block and a half. Id. at 85.

         Plaintiff has arthritic pain and bone spurs in her neck and low back. She explained that she has “congenital fusion of some vertebrae…” in her lower back and in her neck. Id. at 89. This has caused her to have arthritis throughout her spine. Her pain is always present, and she treats it with “a lot of ibuprofen.” Id. at 85. At one point, Plaintiff fractured her pelvis. Id. at 87. A physician prescribed a cane for her, and she has used it since the fracture. She still has pelvic pain that extends into her upper and lower extremities. Id. at 88-89. Plaintiff testified that her lower back pain makes it difficult for her to complete household chores without resting. Id. at 91.

         B. Medical Records and Opinions

         Dr. Kool and Ms. Jones

         After her release from prison, Plaintiff underwent an initial psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Kool in May 2014. He diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic; tobacco dependence; and major depressive disorder, chronic, mild to moderate. Id. at 447. Dr. Kool reported that Plaintiff had a history of repeated childhood sexual abuse and a diagnosis of post- traumatic stress disorder (chronic). Id. at 445. She also had a history of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar I disorder. Id.

         According to Dr. Kool, Plaintiff's inventory of depression was positive for depressed mood, initial insomnia, anhedonia, low-self-esteem, low energy, problems concentrating, increased appetite, and suicidal ideations with attempts. Her symptoms of mania were without insomnia or racing thoughts. Although she would be anxious, she could “complete tasks including cleaning her house.” Id. Plaintiff also described to Dr. Kool her “impulsive money spending or sexual activity, [and] anger issues ….” Id.

         Dr. Kool's mental-status examination of Plaintiff revealed, among other things, that her mood was euthymic, her affect was mildly labile, and she was cooperative. Id. Dr. Kool explained, “Given her childhood abuse history, she displays a personality structure that varies in emotional stability that is consistent with low to moderate functioning given her hospitalizations and legal history….” Id.

         In June 2014, Dr. Kool completed a mental impairment questionnaire in which he opined that Plaintiff experienced marked restrictions in her abilities to maintain social functioning; to sustain concentration, persistence, or pace; to work in proximity to others without being distracted by them; to respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; to get along with coworkers; and to complete a normal workday without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. Id. at 408-09. Dr. Kool also opined that Plaintiff was extremely limited in her abilities to understand and remember detailed instructions and to interact with the general public. Id. at 408-09. Plaintiff's impairments or treatment would cause her to be absent from work more than three times each month, according to Dr. Kool. Id. at 408.

         Teresa Jones, MS, PCC, Plaintiff's mental-health counselor, wrote a letter in February 2015 on Plaintiff's behalf for the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Ms. Jones thought that Plaintiff “meets the definition of disability under the American Disability Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.” Id. at 510. Ms. Jones listed Plaintiff's ...

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