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Nieves v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 16, 2017



          Vanessa L. Bryant, U.S.D.J.

         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the Plaintiff Annabelle Nieves' application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). It is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g).

         Plaintiff has moved for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), or remanding the case for rehearing. [Dkt. No. 21.] The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming the decision. [Dkt. No. 26.] Magistrate Judge Sarah A. L. Merriam rendered a Recommended Ruling on the Cross Motions, recommending that Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of The Commissioner be denied, and recommending Defendant's Motion to Affirm be granted. [Dkt. No. 38.] Plaintiff filed an Objection to the Recommended Ruling [Dkt. No. 39], and the Commissioner filed a Response in favor of the Recommended Ruling. [Dkt. No. 40.]

         For the following reasons, the Recommended Ruling is adopted, Plaintiff's Motion for an Order Reversing or Remanding the Commissioner's Decision [Dkt. No. 21] is DENIED, and the Commissioner's Motion to Affirm that Decision [Dkt. No. 26] is GRANTED.

         I. Background

         The Court presumes the parties' familiarity with the lengthy proceedings below and the record before this Court. Therefore, only the facts relevant to the Plaintiff's objections are repeated here.

         A. Procedural History

         The Plaintiff filed concurrent applications for DIB and SSI on January 10, 2011, alleging disability as of January 5, 2009. [Dkt. No. 17 (“Tr.”) at 139.] These applications were initially denied on August 2, 2011, and denied a second time upon reconsideration on February 28, 2012. Id. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 25, 2012. Id. On February 27, 2013, ALJ Edward F. Sweeney held a hearing at which the Plaintiff appeared and testified. [Tr. at 178-225.] On April 26, 2013, ALJ Sweeney found that the Plaintiff was not disabled, and denied her claims. [Tr. at 139-50.] Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the hearing decision on June 26, 2013. [Tr. 131.] On September 25, 2014, the Appeals Council denied review. [Tr. at 1-7.]

         Plaintiff, represented by counsel, timely filed an action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner with the District Court on November 20, 2014. [Dkt. No. 1.] On January 21, 2016, oral argument on the parties' cross motions was held before Judge Merriam. She issued a recommended ruling denying Plaintiff's Motion for Order Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner and granting Defendant's Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner on February 10, 2016. [Dkt. No. 38.]

         B. Factual Background

         Plaintiff sought and received psychological treatment at the Rushford clinic. Upon intake at the Rushford clinic, Plaintiff reported that she suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress stemming from the 2000 murder of her son and a history of abusive relationships. [Tr. at 730, 735.] Plaintiff received psychological counseling in a “women's trauma group” led by Ms. Tuers twice weekly from May 23, 2011 to November 18, 2011. [Tr. at 669.] Throughout the time Plaintiff participated in the women's trauma group, Ms. Tuers observed that the Plaintiff presented as “attentive” or “cooperative, ” [Tr. at 757, 758, 761, 764, 767, 770, 777, 780, 783, 793], and was occasionally a “positive influence” [Tr. at 766, 768, 771, 773, 779, 782, 788, 790, 795]. Other Rushford records indicate that the Plaintiff was often “friendly and cooperative, ” [Tr. at 908, 910, 912, 914, 916, 918], and was “well groomed, ” [Tr. at 95, 97, 674, 676, 743, 746, 749, 908, 910, 912, 914, 916, 918, 1129, 1131, 1133, 1175, 1177, 1179, 1182].

         Ms. Tuers completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire on the Plaintiff's behalf. [Tr. at 668.] In it, she stated that the Plaintiff had three diagnoses: (1) depression; (2) post-traumatic stress disorder; and (3) stage IV liver cancer. [Tr. at 669.] As ALJ Sweeney and Judge Merriam both noted, the questionnaire is rife with internal inconsistencies. [Dkt. No. 38 at 15-16; Tr. at 148.] For example, while Ms. Tuers circled responses in the “Activities of Daily Living” section indicating that the Plaintiff had “a very serious problem” with “taking care of personal hygiene, ” “caring for physical needs, ” and “using good judgment, ” she added a comment immediately afterward that read, “No problem w/ hygiene/ADL's.” [Tr. at 670.] Similarly, in the “Social Interactions” section, Ms. Tuers circled responses to indicate that the Plaintiff had “a very serious problem” “[g]etting along with others without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, ” but then commented that the Plaintiff had “[e]xcellent social skills.” [Tr. at 671.]

         Additionally, Plaintiff told Ms. Tuers that she suffered from and was receiving treatment for liver cancer, [Tr. at 759, 773, 795], that she “canceled a needed surgery for herself to deal with her cancer to take care of [her] brother, ” [Tr. at 773], and that the cancer may have spread to her bladder, [Tr. at 808, 810, 812]. Consistent with ALJ Sweeney's and Judge Merriam's opinions, the record does not support a liver cancer diagnosis. [Dkt. 38 at 26-27; Tr. at 147.] A disability examiner reported that the Plaintiff denied ever having been diagnosed with cancer. [Tr. at 263.] And Ms. Tuers told the examiner that she did not intend to state that liver cancer was a firm, medical diagnosis, and that she included the diagnosis her questionnaire solely based on the Plaintiff's statements. [Tr. at 263.]

         ALJ Sweeney determined that as an “other treating source, ” Ms. Tuers' opinion was “entitled to careful consideration.” [Tr. at 148.] However, ALJ Sweeney ultimately determined that Ms. Tuers' observations were not entitled to “significant evidentiary weight because her observations are not based on special knowledge she has gained as a treating, primary care provider.” [Tr. at 148.] In support, ALJ Sweeney cited the questionnaire's inconsistencies regarding the Plaintiff's hygiene and social skills, and ...

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