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Saenz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. New York

May 10, 2017

MARIO SAENZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Attorney for Plaintiff OUIMETTE, GOLDSTEIN & ANDREWS, LLP Scott Goldstein, Esq.

          Attorney for Defendant JOON H. KIM Acting United States Attorney U.S. Attorney's Office, Leslie A. Ramirez-Fisher, Esq.

          OPINION

          ROBERT W. SWEET U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff Mario Saenz ("Saenz" or the "Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 402, et seq. (the "Act"), challenging the determination of Defendant Nancy Berryhill[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Berryhill, " the "Defendant, " or the "Commissioner"), to deny his application to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") for monthly disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Both parties have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. As set forth below, the Plaintiff's motion is denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.

         Prior Proceedings

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on June 14, 2012, alleging a disability that began on January 1, 2010. (Social Security Administrative Record (the "R") at 133-42, 153, Dkt. 13.) On November 8, 2012, the Social Security Administration denied Saenz both requests. (R. at 65-69, 76-81.)

         On December 6, 2012, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). ALJ Robert Gonzalez heard Plaintiff's case and testimony on October 8, 2013. (R. at 33-64.) On April 9, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (R. at 10-26.) Plaintiff filed an appeal of that decision to the Appeals Council on May 8, 2014, which denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 21, 2015. (R. at 1-9.)

         On January 26, 2016, Plaintiff timely commenced the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Dkt. 1.) Plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings on September 9, 2016, (Dkt. 14), and on November 8, 2016, the Commissioner cross-moved for the same, (Dkt. 17). Both motions were taken on submission and marked fully submitted on December 15, 2016.

         The Administrative Record

         The Social Security Administrative Record, (Dkt. No. 13), filed as part of the Commissioner's answer, sets forth the following history.

         Saenz was born in May 1974 and has completed high school. (R. at 42, 133.) Prior to his current alleged disability, Plaintiff worked a variety of jobs, including as a warehouse worker, stockperson, machine operator, roofing laborer, janitor, forklift operator, handyman, and parking lot attendant. (R. at 158, 197.) Since adolescence, Plaintiff has had substance abuse problems, and for many years sold drugs to support himself. (R. at 262-63, 766, 783.) Plaintiff maintains regular visitation with his young daughter, with whom he does activities such as bicycling, swimming, watching movies, and going to the library. (R. at 52, 167, 171.)

         a. 2010 Records

         On May 2010, Saenz was hospitalized at Arden Hill Behavioral Health Unit of Orange Regional Medical Center for depression and anxiety. (R. at 859-63.) Upon admission, Saenz tested positive for cannabis, and later acknowledged that he had relapsed into using cocaine and alcohol. (R. at 766, 783, 861.) He was admitted with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and polysubstance dependence. (R. at 859.) While there, Saenz received substance abuse counseling and medication management from Catholic Charities; with therapy and medication, Saenz's condition improved, and he was discharged. (R. at 853, 861-62, 917-20, 1077, 1079, 1082.)

         Starting in June 2010, while continuing his therapy at Catholic Charities, Saenz was admitted into an individual and group counseling program called Personalized Recovery Orientated Services ("PROS"), a part of Occupations, Inc. ("Occupations") (R. at 262-267.) Through PROS, Saenz received counseling from Jennifer Candela, a licensed clinical social worker. (Id.)

         In August 2010, Catholic Charities discharged Saenz for repeatedly missing or arriving late to appointments, in addition to their suspicion that Saenz was not following his prescription regimen. (R. at 918.) That same month, Saenz was also incarcerated for several days for violating an order of protection. (R. at 835.) While incarcerated, Saenz did not have access to medication, which exacerbated his anxiety and required another hospitalization at Orange Regional Medical Center after his release from prison. (R. at 738-86, 853.)

         On September 13, 2010, at the request of the SSA, Dr. Leslie Helprin conducted a consultative psychiatric evaluation of Saenz. While there, Saenz reported that he was able to dress, bathe, groom himself, cook, clean, do laundry, shop, drive, use public transportation, and socialize with friends and family. (R. at 789.) Dr. Helprin observed that Saenz had adequate social skills and motor behavior, was appropriately dressed, made eye contact, and was well-groomed. (R. at 788.) Saenz was "fluent and clear with word-finding" and had "coherent and goal directed" thought processes "with no evidence of hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia." (Id.) His mood was dysthymic and affect dysphoric. (Id.) Saenz's intellectual skills were "below average range, " his insight was "limited, " and his attention and concentration capacity was present but "impaired." (Id.) Dr. Helprin believed that Saenz would have "difficulty dealing appropriately with stress of an independent job in a competitive workplace due to depression." (R. at 789.) Nevertheless, Dr. Helprin concluded that Saenz's judgment was "fair, " he could "maintain a regular schedule, " and that he "would be able to maintain attention and concentration for a simple rote task in a supported work setting." (Id.)

         On October 6, 2010, State agency medical expert Dr. L. Meade reviewed Dr. Helprin's report and other contemporary treating sources. (R. at 837-40.) Dr. Meade noted that Saenz suffered from moderate limitations on his ability to complete a normal workday and respond appropriately to changes in the workplace. (R. at 838.) However, Dr. Meade concluded that Saenz was able to "understand, execute and remember simple instructions and work like procedures." (R. at 839.) Similarly, Saenz could "sustain attention, concentration and pace for a normal work day and work week, " "relate adequately to supervisors and coworkers, " and "use judgment to make simple work related decisions." (Id.)

         Despite his discharge from Catholic Charities, Saenz continued at PROS under the counseling care of Ms. Candela and medication management care of Dr. Muhammad Malik. (R. at 262-67, 793-802.) Saenz's medication was adjusted during this time, principally due to Saenz's leukopenia, but by October was stabilized, and Saenz's mental status and judgment were evaluated as normal, though Saenz remained depressed and anxious. (R. at 637, 794, 807.) Towards the end of 2010, Saenz's attendance at PROS dropped and then stopped altogether; only after Ms. Candela sent Saenz a letter warning of potential discharge from PROS did Saenz resume regular attendance, treatment, and medication. (R. at 940-45.)

         b. 2011 Records

         Treatment at PROS continued throughout 2011. (R. at 429-33, 435-541, 949-1028, 1030-36, 1038-48.) For the first half of 2011, Ms. Candela noted that Saenz regularly attended his counseling sessions and successfully managed his depressive symptoms, even when periodically taken off medication due to his leukopenia. (R. at 951, 955, 975.) Saenz regularly visited his daughter and volunteered at church twice a week. (R. at 954, 958, 960, 968, 972, 982, 1000.)

         By mid-2011, both Ms. Candela and Dr. Malik encouraged Saenz to search for full-time employment. (R. at 982, 1000.) In response to the suggestions, Saenz stated that he was not ready to return to work, (R. at 983), and that he was unwilling to work for "that hard for $10.00 an hour" when he had gotten use to "makingvmad money' when he was dealing drugs." (R. at 1000.)

         In July 2011, after a period of renewed drug abuse, including cannabis and cocaine, and heightened depression, Saenz was admitted back to Orange Regional Medical Center at the recommendation of Ms. Candela. (R. at 866, 868, 871, 1004.) Upon admission, Saenz reported feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and hearing voices. (R. at 876.) Saenz resumed medication and therapy, after which his condition improved and stabilized. (R. at 876.) He was discharged about a week later with a diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder-depressed. (Id.)

         In September 2011, because of Saenz's increased reports of depression, PROS doctors recommended Saenz transfer to Occupations' partial hospitalization program, where he received more intensive, daily support. (R. at 1019, 1021.) Saenz remained there for about two months. (See R. at 1034.) While there, Saenz minimally participated or attended programming, though he continued to attend and volunteer at church and was focused on an upcoming visitation rights hearing regarding his daughter. (R. at 1021-22, 1025, 1027-28.)

         Through the end of 2011, Saenz continued to meet with Dr. Malik and other PROS medical professionals to manage his medication. (R. 497-508, 506, 511, 516-20, 522-27 530-31, 536-39.) The doctors reported that Saenz occasionally experienced auditory hallucinations but that he was able to ignore them and that his thought process continued to be goal directed. (R. at 499, 506, 511, 518, 524, 530, 536.) While Saenz reported anxiety, lack of motivation, and feelings of being overwhelmed, (R. at 506, 519, 524, 530-31, 536), the doctors observed that he was alert and oriented, with fair concentration, fair attention span, and intact memory. (R. at 499, 518, 524, 530, 536, 606.) Dr. Malik again recommended to Saenz that Saenz should return to work. (R. at 506.)

         In October 2011, after not following his medication prescriptions and returning to drug abuse, Saenz was readmitted to Orange Regional Medical Center for depression and reports of hallucinations and paranoia. (R. at 884-900.) After resuming his medication regimen, Saenz's condition improved and stabilized. (R. at 893.) After being discharged, Saenz was ...


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