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Miller v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

February 12, 2015

TERRIE A. MILLER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

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For Terri A. Miller, Plaintiff: Jere B. Fletcher, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rochester, NY.

For Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Andreea Laura Lechleitner, LEAD ATTORNEY, Social Security Administration, Office of General Counsel, New York, NY; Kathryn L. Smith, U.S. Attorney's Office, Rochester, NY.

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ELIZABETH A. WOLFORD, United States District Judge.


Plaintiff Terrie A. Miller (" Plaintiff" ) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking review of the final decision of Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (" the Commissioner" ), denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (" SSI" ). (Dkt. 1). Plaintiff alleges that the decision of Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) John P. Costello was not supported by substantial evidence in the record and was based on erroneous legal standards.

Presently before the Court are the parties' opposing motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Dkt. 6, 11). For the reasons set forth below, this

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Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence in the record and is in accordance with the applicable legal standards. Thus, the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Dkt. 6) is granted, and Plaintiff's motion (Dkt. 11) is denied. Plaintiff's complaint is dismissed with prejudice.


A. Overview

On April 26, 2012, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits. (Administrative Transcript (hereinafter " Tr." ) 128-33). In her application, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of November 1, 1996. (Tr. 164). Plaintiff alleged the following disabilities: heart problems, depression, bipolar disorder, and panic attacks. ( Id.). On August 14, 2012, the Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 74-77).

On January 23, 2013, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before ALJ Costello. (Tr. 26-73). Vocational Expert (" VE" ) Peter Manzi also appeared and testified. (Tr. 68-72). On April 17, 2013, the ALJ issued a finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 9-21).

On July 22, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-3). On September 20, 2013, Plaintiff filed this civil action appealing the final decision of the Commissioner. (Dkt. 1).

B. The Non-Medical Evidence

Plaintiff was 45 years old at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 32). Plaintiff graduated from high school with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) diploma. ( Id.). Plaintiff had varied previous work experience, including time as a motel cleaner and as a fast food worker. (Tr. 33-34, 154). Plaintiff had experienced periods of homelessness. (Tr. 268). She engaged in prostitution for a period of time and had also been incarcerated on more than one occasion. (Tr. 262, 264, 292-93, 295, 383).

1. Plaintiff's Testimony

In a self-reported questionnaire dated July 9, 2012, Plaintiff indicated that she had trouble with bathing, but could shower. (Tr. 181). Plaintiff completed some household chores such as washing dishes and dusting, but her roommate largely took care of the cleaning. (Tr. 182). Plaintiff shopped for groceries and handled money. (Tr. 184). Plaintiff cared for two pet cats. (Tr. 181). Plaintiff stated that she got along with family, friends, neighbors, and others, and went to group meetings, doctor appointments, and the park. (Tr. 185). Plaintiff claimed that she sometimes threw things out of anger, or had panic attacks as often as three to seven times per week. (Tr. 186-89). Plaintiff indicated that she got frustrated reading because she could not read well. (Tr. 186).

At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that her most significant impairment preventing her from work was her heart impairment. (Tr. 35-36). Plaintiff stated that her heart condition caused her to experience palpitations, irregular heartbeats, pain in her throat, and dizziness. (Tr. 36). Plaintiff indicated that she was on the medication Metoprolol and had laser heart surgery. ( Id.). Plaintiff also alleged that she had scoliosis of the spine, which caused her to experience sharp pains in her back and have difficulty lifting, standing, sitting, and bending. (Tr. 39). Plaintiff claimed that she could lift up to ten pounds, and sit or stand for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. (Tr. 40-41). Plaintiff further stated that she had pain in her right leg that made it difficult to go up and down stairs,

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but indicated that she had not yet sought treatment for that pain. (Tr. 43-44).

Plaintiff also alleged disability due to depression, insomnia, and anger issues. (Tr. 44-48). Plaintiff stated that she was not taking medication for these problems, but was receiving therapy. (Tr. 44). Plaintiff attended group therapy five days per week and also attended individual sessions. ( Id.).

Plaintiff lived in a halfway house because she had a history of alcohol abuse and had relapsed. (Tr. 52). Plaintiff had two grown children and received assistance from DSS. (Tr. 32).

2. Case Manager's Testimony

Plaintiff's case manager, Mary Yaw, also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 60). At the time of the hearing, Ms. Yaw was a case manager at Catholic Family Services. (Tr. 61). Ms. Yaw testified that Plaintiff was receiving counseling for her anger, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (" PTSD" ), and alcohol and drug abuse. (Tr. 66-67). Ms. Yaw stated that Plaintiff had trouble sitting through therapy sessions and would often get up and move around the room. (Tr. 65). Ms. Yaw had observed Plaintiff " in full blown anger." (Tr. 66). Plaintiff would yell, and " [fly] off the handle." ( Id.).

3. Vocational Expert's Testimony

At the hearing, the ALJ presented the VE with a series of hypothetical questions. (Tr. 70-73). First, the VE was asked to consider someone of Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience who could perform work at a light exertional level who was limited by needing to avoid heavy machinery and driving, concentrated exposure to respiratory irritants such as dust, odors, fumes, and extremes in temperature and humidity, and was limited to simple tasks and should primarily work alone. (Tr. 69). The VE opined that such a person could perform the jobs of photocopy machine operator or collator operator. (Tr. 70).

The ALJ then presented a second hypothetical question that limited the hypothetical individual to sedentary work with the same additional restrictions. ( Id.). The VE stated that such an individual could perform the work of a table worker or addresser, both sedentary, unskilled positions. ( Id.).

In a third hypothetical, the ALJ asked the VE to consider someone from the first hypothetical with a further impairment that the individual would be off task approximately 20 percent of the time. (Tr. 71). The VE opined that such an individual could not maintain employment. ( Id.).

4. Education Records

The administrative record contains records from Greece Central School District indicating that Plaintiff attended special education classes. (Tr. 222-50). Test results contained in the records indicate that Plaintiff scored within the borderline range of cognitive functioning. (Tr. 248).

C. Summary of the Medical Evidence

The Court assumes the parties' familiarity with the medical record, which is summarized below.

A psychosocial intake evaluation by psychiatrist Dr. Wendy Rosen with respect to treatment dates from January 14, 2011, through March 4, 2011, noted that Plaintiff had a long history of substance abuse and mental health issues, and that Plaintiff experienced symptoms of sadness, tearfulness, rage, insomnia, hopelessness, guilt, lack of energy and motivation, loss of appetite, anxiety, mood swings, fears, nightmares, and ruminating thoughts. (Tr. 293).

Plaintiff went to the emergency department of Rochester Medical Center (" RMC" ) on March 11, 2011, after falling

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out of a chair at her adult-care facility. (Tr. 394). Plaintiff complained of palpitations, burning in her throat, weakness, trouble breathing, and dizziness. ( Id.). Dr. Jeremy Cushman treated Plaintiff at the emergency department and observed that plaintiff appeared unkempt. (Tr. 396). A cardiovascular review revealed a normal rate, regular rhythm, normal heart sounds, intact distal pulses, and no murmurs. (Tr. 397). Plaintiff did not display edema. ( Id.). Plaintiff had no abnormal heart sounds or rhythm on exam or an electrocardiogram (" EKG" ). ( Id.).

On December 17, 2011, Plaintiff returned to the RMC emergency department complaining of palpitations following a dispute with her boyfriend. (Tr. 370). Dr. Radha Ramachandran performed an examination and found that Plaintiff's heart revealed normal rate and heart sounds, regular rhythm, and no gallops, frictions, or rubs. (Tr. 372). An EKG was normal. (Tr. 373).

On February 14, 2012, Dr. Elizabeth Hager, a psychiatrist, diagnosed Plaintiff with bipolar disorder, alcohol and cocaine dependence in early remission, and borderline personality disorder. (Tr. 407). Plaintiff reported anger, aggression, suicidal ideation, mania, anxiety, paranoia, flashbacks, nightmares, depressed mood, crying spells, panic attacks, and social withdrawal. ( Id.).

Plaintiff returned to the RMC emergency department on February 23, 2012, after she sustained a one centimeter laceration to the head. (Tr. 425). Dr. Stephen H. Rosenbloom noted that Plaintiff was intoxicated and displaying " bizarre behavior." ( Id.). A computed tomography (" CT" ) scan of Plaintiff's head was negative. (Tr. 428). ...

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