United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION TO REVERSE THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER AND ON DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER
Joan Glazer Margolis United States Magistrate Judge.
This action, filed under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), as amended, seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security [“SSA”] denying plaintiff Disability Insurance Benefits ["DIB”] and Supplemental Security Income ["SSI"] benefits.
I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
On September 20, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI benefits claiming that she has been disabled since February 27, 2002, which date was later amended to November 19, 2007 (see Tr. 16, 299-300), due to post-traumatic stress disorder ["PTSD"], bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and anxiety. (Certified Transcript of Administrative Proceedings, dated March 10, 2015 [“Tr.”] 160-63, 1118-24). Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 1126-53; see Tr. 73-80),  and on May 6, 2011, plaintiff filed her request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ["ALJ"]. (Tr. 81-82). A hearing was originally scheduled for September 5, 2012 (Tr. 83-91), but then held on November 5, 2012 before ALJ William Dolan, at which plaintiff, vocational expert Richard B. Hall, and plaintiff's father, David Valimba, testified. (Tr. 1082-1102; see Tr. 92-111). On January 9, 2013, ALJ Dolan issued his decision denying plaintiff benefits (Tr. 33-48), and on March 8, 2013, plaintiff filed a request for review of the hearing decision. (Tr. 126). On July 11, 2013, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the case to the ALJ for a new hearing because the Appeals Council was unable to locate the record upon which the ALJ's decision was based, and thus was unable to determine if the decision was supported by substantial evidence. (Tr. 127-29; see Tr. 130-33).
On June 18, 2014, plaintiff, plaintiff's case manager, Meagan Devilder, and vocational expert Courtney Olds testified at a hearing before ALJ Edward F. Sweeney. (Tr. 1044-81; see Tr. 137-51). On July 12, 2014, ALJ Sweeney issued his decision finding that plaintiff has not been under a disability since her amended onset date of November 17, 2007. (Tr. 13-28). On September 12, 2014, plaintiff filed her request for review of the hearing decision (Tr. 12), and on December 4, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 8-11).
On January 26, 2015, plaintiff filed her complaint in this pending action. (Dkt. #1).On April 2, 2015, defendant filed her answer (Dkt. #11), and four days later, defendant filed a copy of the two-volume, 1, 153 page certified administrative transcript, dated March 10, 2015. (Dkt. #13). On June 10, 2015, plaintiff filed her Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner, with brief in support (Dkt. #16; see Dkts. ##14-15), and on August 13, 2015, defendant filed her Motion to Affirm, with brief in support. (Dkt. #17). On November 2, 2015, the parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Magistrate Judge. (See also Dkts. ##20-21).
For the reasons stated below, plaintiff’s Motion to Reverse the Decision (Dkt. #16) is granted in part, and defendant’s Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (Dkt. #17) is denied.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
A. ACTIVITIES OF DAILY LIVING AND HEARING TESTIMONY
At the time of plaintiff's hearing in November 2012, she was living at Crossroads, a residential inpatient drug treatment halfway house in New Haven, Connecticut. (Tr. 1086). At her hearing held two years later, in June 2014, she was living in "re-entry assisted community housing for individuals on parole" (Tr. 1071), as plaintiff had just been released from prison on January 30, 2014. (Tr. 1068). At that time, plaintiff was divorced, and her three children were ages fifteen, ten and eight. (Tr. 1051).
Plaintiff testified that her family "takes [her] to do everything that [she] need[s] to do[, ]" and helps her pay her expenses. (Tr. 1052). When her family is not with her, she stays in bed as she is "afraid to interact on [her] own" (Tr. 1061), she cannot "interact with people" (Tr. 1062), she will not ride a bus because there are too many people (Tr. 1062-63),  and she cannot "complete tasks." (Tr. 1062).
Plaintiff testified that she has "struggled with mental health problems since [she] was a teenager" (Tr. 1055), and she was "beaten, strangled, and . . . was ultimately run over by [her second husband], and [was] in a coma for several weeks[.]" (Id.). Consequently, plaintiff has "mental health problems that prevent [her] from feeling okay around people[, ]" she has anxiety so she stays in bed to cope with her "problems, [and she] can't even make it to [therapy] groups that [she is] supposed to go to." (Id.). When she does attend her group therapy sessions, she does not interact. (Tr. 1063, 1066). According to plaintiff, she spends "most of the day . . . in bed with the covers over [her] eyes." (Tr. 1056; see also Tr. 1065 (when not at therapy she is home in bed sleeping), 1091, 1093 (in November 2012, testified that she stays in bed and stays in room during social hours)). She goes into a "mental cycle of paranoia and anxiety, and stress, and it really, it disables [her]." (Tr. 1056). She "fear[s] people . . . are out to get [her], even in [her] home" (Tr. 1091), and she has "panic attacks and drop[s] to the floor[, ] . . . can't breathe, " cries, and "can't complete any task[.]" (Id.).
Plaintiff's case manager, Meagan Devilder, testified at the hearing that plaintiff is "very unable to handle day to day expectations with appointments that she needs to keep." (Tr. 1070). According to Devilder, plaintiff is "easily . . . overwhelmed with the simplest things that we would be able to do day to day." (Tr. 1071). She obsesses and becomes hysterical; she will "have a breakdown and [start] hysterical crying." (Tr. 1072). Devilder explained that she performs random home visits and "often" finds plaintiff in bed. (Tr. 1072, 1075). If she finds her awake, they talk, but plaintiff is "panicky, hysterical crying, " worried and paranoid. (Tr. 1075).
She takes medication (see Tr. 1056-57), but she described herself as "still having trouble completing any of [her] daily goals[, ]" and "still deteriorating[.]" (Tr. 1056). In November 2012, plaintiff reported that her medication makes her dizzy and disoriented. (Tr. 1093-94).
Plaintiff has a history of drug abuse. (Tr. 1058-59). At the time of her hearing in June 2014, plaintiff testified that she had one relapse of cocaine use for a day in April, and that she had not drank alcohol in fifteen years. (Tr. 1057-58; see also Tr. 1074, 1095).Plaintiff is tested for drugs at least three times a week. (Tr. 1075).
B. PLAINTIFF’S WORK HISTORY & VOCATIONAL ANALYSIS
Plaintiff completed two or three years of college (Tr. 202, 217, 1052, 1087), and last worked "in marketing in 2003[, ]" which job she had for three years. (Tr. 1052-53; but see Tr. 1087 (last worked in 2002 and later "worked for like two days painting" for a neighbor)). Plaintiff testified that she stopped working after she "was sexually harassed in the workplace" in 2002, which was "the beginning of some problems in [her] life." (Tr. 1054). She testified that she was working for Manufacturers Life when that occurred. (Tr. 1090). In that job, she took calls from brokers, did presentations "with underwriting[, ]" sent out marketing materials, and went to "luncheons with brokers to discuss" sales. (Tr. 1088; see Tr. 198, 218, 236, 244-45, 264-65). Prior to that, in 1999, she worked for Guardian Life Insurance, which was her father's company, as a "team assistant[, ]" which position she described as "one step below a marketing rep." (Tr. 1089; see Tr. 244, 246, 264, 266). In 1998, she worked for Vocational Advancement Center as an employment consultant, or job coach for people with physical disabilities. (Tr. 1089-90; see also Tr. 198, 236, 244, 247, 264, 267). Prior to that, she worked as a waitress. (See Tr. 236, 244, 248, 264, 268).
She received income through short term disability in 2002 (Tr. 349-50), and her substance abuse issues started in 2007. (Tr. 1060). In early 2014, plaintiff tried to search for work but became "very overwhelmed to the point of where it made [her] physically sick and panicked[, ] [a]nd [she] ended up in [her] room for a couple of weeks, in . . . bed." (Tr. 1067).
The vocational expert testified that plaintiff's past work was as a sales coordinator for an insurance company, and then as an office clerk, both of which were sedentary jobs. (Tr. 1077-78). The vocational expert testified that plaintiff cannot perform any of her past work, but could perform work as a machine operator, a night cleaner, and a laundry worker, but with limitations of simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a non-public setting. (Tr. 1078-79). However, if the limitations also included "a propensity to be off task, or away from the work station, or out of the work site for [fifteen] percent of a typical work day, or work week[, ]" such work could not be performed. (Tr. 1079). The same result applied if one were to be "completely absent from the work site for two days per month on average, on a [recurring] basis . . . at an unpredictable timeframe[.]" (Tr. 1079-80).
C. MEDICAL RECORDS
Plaintiff's first mental health record in the file is dated February 26, 2002, when plaintiff reported to Dr. Ali O. Erol that she "had [a] sexual harassment issue at work[.]" (Tr. 339). Plaintiff agreed to a psychiatric evaluation, and was prescribed Ativan. (Id.). In March and then April 2002, she was prescribed Prozac (Tr. 336), and then Wellbutrin (Tr. 335) for her anxiety and depression. In August and September 2003, Dr. Erol prescribed plaintiff Lexapro and Xanax for anxiety and depression. (Tr. 331-32).
In January 2005, plaintiff received emergency treatment at St. Francis Hospital for anxiety and depression, for which she was given Torodal, Ativan and Motrin. (See Tr. 354-65; see also Tr. 381-83). In April and May 2005, plaintiff was seen for a follow up for depression, for which she was prescribed Paxil, then Lexapro, and then Wellbutrin. (Tr. 374-79). In August and September 2007, plaintiff received treatment for knee pain; plaintiff's depression and anxiety were noted in the records. (See Tr. 515, 518-19, 525-28).
As previously indicated, plaintiff amended her date of disability to November 19, 2007, the date on which she began treatment at the RiverEast Day Treatment Center at Natchaug Hospital [“RiverEast”], following a relapse of cocaine and marijuana, but she stopped attending the program on December 12, and was discharged from the program on December 19, 2007. (Tr. 477-80; see Tr. 481). Upon discharge, plaintiff had a GAF of 40, and was prescribed two doses of Seroquel, in addition to Wellbutrin, Trazadone, Hydroxyzine, and Lamictal. (Tr. 481).
In late 2007 and early 2008, plaintiff was seen at the Western Connecticut Mental Health Network (Tr. 755-63), at which time plaintiff was "very sleepy" (Tr. 755), and reported "having a meltdown[.]" (Id.). From January 21 to February 20, 2008, plaintiff was enrolled at RiverEast, following a relapse of crack cocaine and marijuana use on January 18 and 19. (Tr. 472-76). Plaintiff was admitted to a residential treatment program at Alliance Treatment Center, Inc. from February 22 to March 8, 2008, when plaintiff left "AWOL." (Tr. 482; see also Tr. 483-513). At that time, ...