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Fuller v. Astrue

September 7, 2010

DANA M. FULLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Dana M. Fuller ("Plaintiff" or "Fuller") brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") James E. Dombeck, which denied her application for benefits, was not supported by substantial evidence and contrary to applicable legal standards.

The Commissioner moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Rule 12(c)") on grounds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and therefore, should be affirmed. Plaintiff opposes the Commissioner's motion and cross-moves for judgment on the pleadings on grounds that the ALJ's decision was in violation of Title II of the Act, as well as the Regulations promulgated thereunder, and was not based on substantial evidence but rather was based on errors of law. Plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand the matter for calculation and payment of benefits, or in the alternative, remand the matter for further administrative proceedings.

For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied and the Plaintiff's cross-motion is granted. Pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §405(g), the Court remands the matter for calculation and payment of benefits.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Dana M. Fuller ("Fuller") was born on January 12, 1965, and is presently forty-five years old. (Tr.*fn1 43). On April 24, 2006, Fuller protectively filed an application for a closed period of disability and DIB for the period of January 3, 1998 through December 31, 2002, the date last insured for Title II benefits. (Id.*fn2 ). She claimed that she was unable to work since January 3, 1998 due to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder ("OCD") and panic disorder with agoraphobia. (Tr. 56). The application was initially denied on July 5, 2006, and Plaintiff filed a timely request for an administrative hearing. (Tr. 66, 67-80).

Plaintiff appeared, with counsel, and testified at the hearing on April 23, 2008 in Rochester, New York, before ALJ, James E. Dombeck. (Tr. 331-54). Plaintiff's husband also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 343-48). In a decision dated September 25, 2008, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act for the period of disability from January 3, 1998 through December 31, 2002. (Tr. 11-21). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on September 4, 2009, when the Appeals Council denied further review. (Tr. 5-8). On November 4, 2009, Plaintiff timely filed this action.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Medical Evidence

Fuller has a long history of treatment for mental conditions, diagnosed as major depression, anxiety and panic disorder with agoraphobia and obsessive compulsive disorder ("OCD"). In 1986, at the age of 21, she was admitted for 22 days to The Meadows, an in-patient psychiatric facility in Pennsylvania, upon referral of a physician at the Park Ridge Chemical Dependency Program, due to "an acute exacerbation of depressive symptomology compounded by difficulties with her parents... and exacerbated by alcohol and substance abuse." (Tr. 291). Fuller was diagnosed with Major Affective Disorder, depression and Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder (Tr. 291-303). She was prescribed Imipramine, an antidepressant used to treat depression and other mental/mood disorders. (Id.). She was also diagnosed as having a "longstanding history of depression," with an anxiety and personality disorder that required therapy and medication. (Tr. 291, 303). The medical records related to Plaintiff's treatment at The Meadows contained in the record are rather extensive and indicate Plaintiff received substantial psychiatric, psychosocial and pyschological evaluation and treatment throughout her hospitalization. (Tr. 291-303).

Following her in-patient stay at The Meadows, Plaintiff was treated intermittently by her primary treating physician, Dr. Linda Rice, an internist. Treatment notes from August 21, 1989 through June 1, 2001, and May 2004, consistently diagnose depression or anxiety and panic disorders, and make reference to Dr. Rice's referrals of Plaintiff for mental health therapy and medication. (Tr. 304 - 313). Office notes also indicate that Plaintiff was prescribed several different antidepressants including Prozac, Trazodone, Paxil, Buspar, Effexor and Klonquin, all of which she did not tolerate well. (Id.). Moreover, Dr. Rice's treatment notes indicate that she and Plaintiff discussed on more than one occasion Plaintiff's anxiety, depression and tendencies for suicidal thoughts. Dr. Rice noted Fuller's willingness to seek mental health therapy but also noted Plaintiff's concerns regarding the cost of services. (Tr. 307-11). There is also an office note in Dr. Rice's records indicating that Plaintiff was on a leave of absence from work in the Summer of 1994 for at least two weeks which was related to her anxiety and panic disorder. (Tr. 307).

Plaintiff was treated at the Mental Health Clinic of Family Service of Rochester, Inc. from October 5, 1999 through July 5, 2000, but discontinued treatment because of the cost. (Tr. 314). Those treatment notes indicate Plaintiff was diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia and dependent traits. (Tr. 314-25). She was attempting to address her symptomology without medication. (Id.).

Beginning in May 2003 (within six months of the date last insured for benefits) through June 2006, Plaintiff treated with the Spiritus Christi Mental Health Outreach program by Elizabeth Masco, NP, and Dr. T. Pielnik. (Tr. 128-164). A medication chart in the record reveals Plaintiff was treated with the following medications during this period of time: Buspar (5mg); Vistaril (25mg); Luvox (50 mg); Klonopin (.25mg - 1mg); Ativan (.5 - 1mg); Celexa (20g); Seroquel (100g); Lamictal (200g). (Tr. 129-130). She was diagnosed with OCD, panic disorder with agoraphobia, depression and anxiety. (Tr. 131-164).

From 2004 through 2007, Plaintiff treated with several practitioners and the record is replete with evidence substantiating a diagnosis of OCD, major depression, and panic and anxiety disorder with agoraphobia, causing her total disability.

Plaintiff was also hospitalized on three occasions in 2006 because her condition had increased in severity over the years. (Tr. 179-285). Plaintiff's medication history is extensive, including Zoloft, Zyprexa, Klonopin, Anafranil, Lithium Carbonate, Propanolol, Geodon (to treat bi-polar disorder) and Inderal (a beta blocker).

B. Testimony

Plaintiff testified at the hearing on April 22, 2008 that she was diagnosed with OCD as a child and that she saw a psychiatrist when she was 7 years old. (Tr. 335). Plaintiff began treating with a therapist in high school. (Tr. 337-38, 349). She attended high school through the eleventh grade and attempted to obtain her GED through a program at Monroe Community College, but her panic disorder and agoraphobia prevented her from completing the program. (Tr. 304-305; 349-350). Plaintiff married her husband Steven in 1997, and they have two children. (Tr. 338). Her last job was working at a day care center in 1997, which she described as a "nightmare" due to her OCD and phobia of germs and people. (Tr. 338-39).

It is clear from the transcript of the hearing that only issue the ALJ sought to determine was the onset date of disability. At the beginning of the hearing, the ALJ stated: "There's really only one issue, and that is onset." (Tr. 333). Later in the hearing the ALJ explained to Plaintiff's husband that, "The largest issue here is the date last insured [December 31, 2002]. What I am trying to ascertain is information or evidence of disability prior to that date... As we move beyond that, there's not - there's no really serious question about disability." (Tr. 344).

C. The ALJ's Decision

The ALJ found that Plaintiff's depression and panic disorder with agoraphobia were severe impairments, but these impairments did not meet or equal the criteria in the Listing of Impairments ("the Listing") to support a per se determination of disability. (Tr. 16-17). The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform "simple work in a low-contact environment at all exertional levels." (Tr. 18). While her RFC precluded Plaintiff from her past work as a child care worker, the ALJ determined that, based upon her age, education and other relevant factors, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed through the date ...


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