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Kidd v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 9, 2018

JEROME C. KIDD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION

          FREDA L. WOLFSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Jerome C. Kidd (“Plaintiff”), appeals from the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Nancy A. Berryhill (“Defendant”), denying Plaintiff disability benefits under Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for the period from January 1, 2009 through February 27, 2014. After reviewing the Administrative Record, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was based on substantial evidence and, accordingly, it is affirmed.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff was born on February 18, 1961. Although Plaintiff originally alleged a disability onset date of February 27, 2014, he subsequently amended the alleged onset date to January 1, 2009. Administrative Record 19, 240 (hereinafter “A.R.”). Plaintiff graduated from high school and attended four years of college, receiving a bachelor's degree in Psychology and Sociology. A.R. 50. Prior to his alleged disability, Plaintiff worked as an insurance agent, salesperson, department manager, and bicycle assembler. A.R. 26.

         On March 19, 2014, Plaintiff applied for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, initially alleging disability, based upon mental disorder, beginning on February 27, 2014. A.R. 231. Plaintiff's claims were denied on June 20, 2014, A.R. 155-59, and again upon reconsideration on November 10, 2014. A.R. 166-71. On December 4, 2014, Plaintiff requested a hearing, A.R. 172-76, which was held on April 6, 2017 before ALJ Karen Shelton, during which Plaintiff was represented by counsel and amended the alleged disability onset date to January 1, 2009. A.R. 35-98. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to February 27, 2014, but became disabled on that date for the purposes of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. A.R. 19-28. Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on February 16, 2018. A.R. 1-5. On April 6, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant appeal.

         A. Review of the Medical Evidence[1]

         On September 28, 2012, Plaintiff was admitted to a hospital as an inpatient with complaints of “feeling very suicidal.” A.R. 407. Plaintiff was described as having a “history of major depressive disorder” and Plaintiff admitted to “two prior suicide attempts” in 2003 and 2011. A.R. 407. Plaintiff “described no motivation, not feeling like doing anything, not sleeping at night but staying in bed all day, having no appetite[, ] recent weight loss[, ] . . . having recurrent suicidal thoughts and feel[ing] increasingly fearful and anxious”; conversely, Plaintiff denied hearing any voices, feeling paranoid, a history of hypomania or mania, and alcohol or illicit substance abuse. A.R. 407. Plaintiff indicated that his father died ten years ago, and stated that “it has been difficult since then and he has not had steady employment, ” although he admitted to performing “some odd jobs.” A.R. 407. Plaintiff's “support system” only included his sister in New Jersey. A.R. 407.

         A mental status exam revealed that Plaintiff appeared disheveled, poorly kempt, and despondent; his speech was monotonic with psychomotor retardation; his affect was blunt; and his mood was depressed. However, Plaintiff had normal gait and carriage; he was oriented in all spheres; his immediate recall and delayed recall were intact; his intellectual functioning was average to above average; his thought process was linear; he had good insight and fair judgment; he was not delusional; he felt safe on the hospital ward; he was able to approach staff if he had any intent of harming himself; and he denied hallucinations and paranoia. A.R. 408. As treatment, the examining physician prescribed 25 mg of sertraline and Plaintiff was admitted to the ITP unit of the hospital, where he underwent a negative drug test and a normal physical examination. A.R. 408.

         On October 1, 2012, Plaintiff was ultimately discharged, at which time the medical provider assessed a GAF score of 50.[2] A.R. 410. The medical provider also attested to the following: “[p]atient did well during his stay in the hospital. His mood was fine. He denied any suicidal or homicidal ideations.” A.R. 409. Plaintiff's condition was “[s]table. Patient is not suicidal or homicidal.” A.R. 409. Moreover, his prognosis was deemed “[f]air with compliance.” A.R. 410.

         On February 7, 2014, Plaintiff's sister brought Plaintiff to the Emergency Department at Trenton Capital Health, because “a couple of days ago he told her he didn't feel like living.” A.R. 418, 424. The medical provider's notes indicate that, upon admission, Plaintiff reported years of “depression” and [suicidal ideation]” without a plan or intent. A.R. 419. Plaintiff explained that he had been living in Virginia for the previous five years, where he eventually became homeless and was placed in “some type of boarding home.” A.R. 424. However, Plaintiff stated that he was currently living with his sister, who purchased and arranged for his transportation back to New Jersey, and that he “basically came today to satisfy” her. A.R. 421, 424, 429. A psychiatric examination demonstrated that Plaintiff's mood was depressed, his concentration was deficient, and his insight was partial. A.R. 422. However, Plaintiff appeared relaxed and well nourished; he was alert and cooperative; he was not in any obvious discomfort; he maintained eye contact; he responded appropriately to questions; his speech and affect were normal; his thought process was organized; he was oriented in all spheres; and he had immediate, recent, and remote memory recall. A.R. 422, 429. Plaintiff was eventually discharged and instructed to schedule a “follow up” appointment with a medical clinic. A.R. 435. His condition was “stable” and “without any acute distress.” A.R. 435-36.

         On February 27, 2014, Plaintiff underwent an initial mental status assessment at Greater Trenton Behavioral Health. A.R. 440-443. Dr. Sarah Mundassery, M.D., administered the evaluation, which revealed as follows: Plaintiff's affect was constructed; his mood was anxious; his thought content was worried; his recent memory was impaired; and his insight was partial. A.R. 441. However, Plaintiff appeared well groomed; he had good hygiene; he was cooperative; he had normal motor activity; his speech was normal; his thought process was intact, logical, and goal-directed; he was alert and oriented in all three spheres; his judgment was intact; he denied any suicidal ideations; and he denied homicidal ideations. A.R. 441. Dr. Mundassery diagnosed Plaintiff with depression and bipolar disorder, and she also opined that Plaintiff was unable to work for a period of one year or more. A.R. 444. Records reveal that Plaintiff continued treatment at Greater Trenton Behavioral Health through July 28, 2014.

         On June 20, 2014, Thomas Yared, M.D., a State agency medical consultant, independently reviewed Plaintiff's medical records. A.R. 99-110. In doing so, Dr. Yared determined that Plaintiff was not significantly limited in his capacity to perform the following tasks: understand and remember very short and simple instructions; carry out very short and simple instructions; make simple work-related decisions; ask simple questions or request assistance; maintain socially appropriate behavior and to adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness; respond appropriately to changes in the work setting; and be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions. A.R. 106-07. However, Plaintiff was moderately limited in his capacity to perform the following tasks: remember locations and work-like procedures; understand and remember detailed instructions; carry out detailed instructions; maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance; be punctual within customary tolerances; sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision; work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms; perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; interact appropriately with the general public; accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes; travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation; and set realistic goals or make plans independently of others. A.R. 107-07. Dr. Yared also opined that Plaintiff was capable of performing the basic mental demands of unskilled work. A.R. 104.

         On November 11, 2014, Amy Brams, Ph. D., a State agency medical consultant, independently reviewed Plaintiff's medical records, and affirmed Dr. Yared's determinations. A.R. 125-138.

         A letter, dated October 13, 2015, confirms that Plaintiff had been attending a partial care program from Monday through Thursday and sought treatment from Dr. Shaila Maddaiah, M.D., at All Access Mental Health (“AAMH”) beginning on January 28, 2015. A.R. 500. The note states that Plaintiff's “attendance at and participation in the program has been exemplary. In addition, [Plaintiff] has been completely complaint with his medication.” A.R. 500.

         During the course of his treatment at AAMH, on August 6, 2015, Dr. Maddaiah examined Plaintiff's ability to perform work-related activities over the period of a normal workday and workweek. A.R. 497. According to Dr. Maddaiah, Plaintiff displayed a marked deterioration in his ability to function over the past 15 years. A.R. 498. She also found that Plaintiff was moderately limited in his capacity to perform the following tasks: understand and remember detailed instructions; carry out detailed instructions; make judgments on simple work-related decisions; respond appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting; and respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting. A.R. 497-98. On the other hand, Dr. Maddaiah noted that Plaintiff was only slightly limited in his capacity to interact appropriately with supervisors and co-workers, and that Plaintiff had no limitations in his capacity to perform the following tasks: understand and remember short, simple instructions; carry out short, simple instructions; and interact appropriately with the public. A.R. 498. Dr. Maddaiah also performed a mental status examination, revealing as follows: Plaintiff appeared withdrawn; his speech was slow; and his thinking was slow. A.R. 498. However, Plaintiff was deemed capable of managing benefits in his own best interest A.R. 498.

         A letter, dated April 4, 2017, from Brittany Baker, a partial care counselor at AAMH, also confirms that Plaintiff had been receiving mental health services at AAMH for depression and bipolar disorder, since January 28, 2015. A.R. 501. In the letter, Ms. Baker states that Plaintiff “struggles with socializing and frequently isolates. He attends psychoeducational groups and Illness Management and Recovery to decrease and manage his symptoms for the prevention of hospitalizations. [Plaintiff] also sees the Psychiatrist on site who prescribes and monitors his psych-medications regularly.” A.R. 501.

         A letter, dated December 4, 2017, from Carla Baker, a therapist at Oaks Integrated Care, provides as follows: “[t]hroughout [Plaintiff's] treatment it became obvious that [Plaintiff's] psychiatric condition [will] continue to impact his life and interfere with consistent and persistent ability to maintain employment, and effective social and family interaction. It is recommended that Mr. Kidd continue to receive therapy to support efforts towards wellness.” A.R. 6-7.

         B. Review of Disability Determinations

         On March 19, 2014, Plaintiff applied for social security disability insurance benefits, initially alleging disability beginning on February 27, 2014, but subsequently amending his alleged onset date to January 1, 2009. A.R. 19, 240. On June 20, 2014, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claim for disability benefits. A.R. 155-59. On November 10, 2014, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, finding that the previous determination denying Plaintiff's claim was proper under the law. A.R. 166-71.

         C. Review of Testimonial Record

         1. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing in this matter, held on April 6, 2017, before the ALJ. A.R. 35-98. At the hearing, Plaintiff, through counsel, amended his alleged onset date from February 27, 2014 to January 1, 2009.

         Plaintiff testified that he resides in an apartment, by himself, although he has three children, two of which are minors. A.R. 47-48. Plaintiff stated that, since he stopped working in 2009, he has received “general assistance, ” food stamps, Medicaid Health Insurance, and performed “odd jobs” for money. A.R. 48. Plaintiff explained that he does not currently possess a valid driver's license, because it was suspended as a result of delinquent child support; however, he uses public transportation to travel. A.R. 49. Plaintiff stated that he graduated high school and completed four years of college, with a Bachelor's degree in both Psychology and Sociology. A.R. 49.

         When asked about his prior work history, Plaintiff testified that he was previously employed as a licensed insurance agent for Morgan Merrill Company in 2003, managing various policies for clients. A.R. 50-51. Plaintiff stated that he eventually resigned from Morgan Merrill following the death of his father, because he began experiencing “panic attack episodes at work[.]” A.R. 52-53. Plaintiff indicated that, from approximately 2004 to 2007, he was employed with Wal-Mart, initially assembling bicycles, and then working as the department manager of the housing goods department. A.R. 53-56. Subsequently, Plaintiff mentioned that he worked at Macys selling suits, as well as Ross, where he became “very frustrated one day and quit.” A.R. 57-58. Plaintiff explained that he eventually obtained employment at “Called Cemetery Services, ” selling cemetery plots and mausoleums for approximately six months, until approximately 2010. A.R. 58-60.

         When asked what has kept him from seeking further employment, Plaintiff stated “[w]ell I became homeless for a period of time, and that-I was too unstable then to work.” A.R. 60. Plaintiff testified that he was eventually housed by a service called HELP during the winter months in Virginia, following which he moved from “church to church, ” sleeping on the floors. A.R. 61. Plaintiff further testified that, after having learned of Plaintiff's circumstances, his sister paid and arranged for his transportation to New Jersey, and he lived with her from about February through October of 2014. A.R. 62. Plaintiff ...


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