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Rakoff v. Astrue

March 20, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dora L. Irizarry, U.S. District Judge

Opinion and Order

Plaintiff Mitchell Rakoff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), to appeal the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), which found him ineligible to receive disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act") prior to July 1, 1983. The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted and the Commissioner's final decision is affirmed. I. Background

A. Procedural History

This case concerns Rakoff's eligibility to receive disability insurance and SSI benefits over a four-year period from July 1979 to June 1983. The administrative record ("A.R.") shows that the Social Security Administration ("SSA") has thrice reviewed his applications for benefits for the said period and has thrice determined that he was not eligible. Rakoff first applied for benefits on April 2, 1982 claiming total disability from June 1976 due to "psychiatric problems." (A.R. 329-50) The application was denied by the SSA on June 28, 1982. (A.R. 311-13) He reapplied for benefits on July 6, 1983 alleging disability beginning in 1968. This application was initially denied in its entirety by the SSA, but after several appeals including an appeal to and remand from this district court, SSA determined that Rakoff was disabled only from June 15, 1983 to February 28, 1986. (A.R. 36, 172-74). He filed another application for disability benefits in 1987 alleging that he was disabled from August 1986 onward. (A.R. 36, 182-85). This application did not claim benefits prior to July 1983, and was eventually granted on October 31, 1988. The ALJ in that decision found Rakoff had anxiety and personality disorders severe enough to meet the Commissioner's listed impairments. Plaintiff currently receives disability SSI benefits.

Following the settlement of the class action in Stieberger v. Sullivan, 81 F.Supp.1079 (S.D.N.Y. 1992), Rakoff requested on August 17, 1993 to reopen his April 2, 1982 application for benefits pursuant to the Stieberger settlement agreement.*fn2 Under the settlement, Rakoff can claim that he was disabled in the 48 months leading up to the first date of his eligibility for SSI. See Stieberger, 801 F.Supp. at 1091; Program Operations Manual DI §§ 42586.001(A)(7) & 12586.035(C)(1).Since he was previously found to have been disabled from June 1983 onwards, the relevant Stieberger development period in this case is the four years from July 1979 to July 1983 ("the Stieberger period").*fn3 SSA reopened and reviewed for the third time Rakoff's claim of disability prior to July 1983 and, on October 1, 2001, after de novo review, found the initial determination to be correct. (Tr. 323-27). Rakoff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). After a hearing was held, ALJ David Z. Nisnewitz determined on July 24, 2003 that Rakoff was not disabled prior to July 1983. (A.R. 16-24). This decision became final when the Appeals Board denied review on April 7, 2005. (A.R. 9-11). Plaintiff filed timely appeal of the decision in this court on June 3, 2005 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

The question presented to the court is whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's final decision that plaintiff Rakoff was not disabled during the Stieberger period.

B. Factual Background

1. Relevant Medical History

Mitchell Rakoff was born in 1954, and first received treatment for psychological and emotional problems at the age of six. (A.R. 112) In 1968, he was hospitalized for six weeks at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, where he was diagnosed with having a "schizophrenic reaction with obsessive-compulsive features." (A.R. 117) From 1969 to 1973, he was treated by psychiatrist Dr. Peter Howland. (A.R. 86, 118, 146) In October 1973, Dr. Howland wrote a letter to the Selective Service System stating that Rakoff was unfit for military service due to his psychiatric condition. Dr. Howland noted that while Rakoff "made good progress with improved thinking, decreased ritualistic behavior and decreased anxiety," he still required "regular psychotherapy and psychotropic medication." (A.R. 118) This is the last recorded treatment plaintiff received until 1981.

The Administrative Record contains two medical reports from the Stieberger period: a conclusion note from three social workers at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where Rakoff received treatment in the fall of 1981, and a report from Dr. Joseph Benezara, who conducted a consulting examination of plaintiff in May 1982. In conducting de novo review of the Commissioner's final decision, the court also considered several medical reports that were prepared shortly after the Stieberger period ended in June 1983.

a. Long Island Jewish Medical Center Report

For five weeks in the fall of 1981, Rakoff attended weekly therapy sessions at the adult outpatient department of the Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center. (A.R. 141). His treatment was documented in a conclusion note signed by three social workers in April 1982. (A.R. 139-42).

He was 27 years old and living with his mother or girlfriend at the time. The social workers found him to be loquacious and documented his "thought disorders," which were manifested through "poor reality testing, being illogical, [having] delusions of grandeur . . . and disorganization." (A.R. 140). He claimed that he needed "to have someone with him at all times in order to let him know whether he has done everything the way he should" and that such compulsive ritualized behavior practically immobilized him. (A.R. 140, 141) He also felt grandiose and above the law and became "enraged" when others did not cooperate. (Id.) Rakoff also had relationship problems with his girlfriend and legal problems with credit cards and the telephone company. (A.R. 140)

The social workers treated him for compulsive personality disorder, and could not rule out chronic paranoid schizophrenia. They described him as not very motivated to deal with his problems. (A.R. 140) He skipped many treatment sessions and made few gains. (A.R. 141) For example, he agreed to get rid of certain credit cards but only those he could no longer use. The social workers suspected the reason he sought treatment was to mitigate his legal troubles. He was involved in fraud and rip-offs involving credit cards. He was "quite happy to con the therapist [but] somewhat disappointed when he unable to." (Id.) He broke off the therapy sessions after five weeks, claiming to be seeking treatment elsewhere. In their conclusion, the social workers found Rakoff's condition unchanged and gave a guarded prognosis. They also warned that should he return for more treatment, "his motivation should certainly be explored" because he "tends to use therapy at and for his convenience and not really invest himself in the process." (A.R. 142)

b. Dr. Benezara Report

After applying for disability benefits in April 1982, Rakoff was interviewed by Dr. Joseph Benezara on May 15, 1982. (A.R. 369-71) Dr. Benezara diagnosed him with "[s]evere obsessional neurosis" and the likely presence of "a residual schizophrenia with paranoid concerns." (A.R. 371)

Dr. Benezara found Rakoff to have normal cognitive capacities and to be helpful, cooperative and responsive throughout the interview. (A.R. 370) Rakoff's speech, he noted, was "generally relevant, logical, and coherent."(Id.) Rakoff was alert, showed average concentration and fund of general information, and had unimpaired judgment. (Id.)

Rakoff told Dr. Benezara that he cannot sit still, cannot take instruction and becomes easily provoked into anger and violence. (A.R. 369) Dr. Benezara described some of Rakoff's psychological impairments caused by obsessions and compulsions, including "some minor persecutory delusions" that his telephone line was being tapped and other people were spying on him. (Id.) Rakoff had to check things multiple times such as "return[ing] to his door numerous times within an hour to check that the screws on the door are tightened properly." (A.R. 369-70) He would become violent if unable to check them. (A.R. 369) Rakoff reported having a few friends with whom he dealt with on "a superficial level" but also suspected them of wishing him harm.

Dr. Benezara believed Rakoff could probably "perform usual household chores or shop in the neighborhood," and manage his own funds. (A.R. 370, 371) He also stated that "some limitations in Rakoff's personal and social life . . . would make [it] hard for him to accept any . . . task or supervision or customary work pressure for any period of time." (A.R. 371)He concluded that while therapy and medication could improve Rakoff's condition, he did not "expect any significant restoration of function even with the best of treatments." (Id.)

c. Dr. Quinones Report

Shortly after Rakoff applied for disability benefits in July 6, 1983, he was examined by consulting physician Dr. Matthew Quinones on July 29, 1983. (A.R. 122-124) Dr. Quinones diagnosed him with "atypical exacerbation of psychosis", major depression following death of his mother, a borderline personality, and obesity. (A.R. 123)

Dr. Quinones found Rakoff to be cooperative and unremarkable. (A.R. 122) Rakoff gave coherent and relevant responses and demonstrated "high average" intelligence and adequate general fund of information. (A.R. 122, 123) He reported having a girlfriend, a few friends, and occasionally saw relatives. (A.R. 123) Dr. Quinones opined ...

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