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Jenkins v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. New York

September 6, 2017

LAURIE JENKINS, Plaintiff
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

         APPEARANCES

          For the Plaintiff: Kenneth R. Hiller, Esq.

          For the Defendant: Elizabeth Rothstein, Esq.

          Kathryn L. Smith, A.U.S.A.Office of the United States Attorney

          DECISION AND ORDER

          CHARLES J. SIRAGUSA United States District Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”), which denied the application of Laurie Jenkins (“Plaintiff”) for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. Now before the Court is Plaintiff's motion (Docket No. [#10]) for judgment on the pleadings and Defendant's cross-motion [#13] for judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiff's application is denied, Defendant's application is granted, and this action is dismissed.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The reader is presumed to be familiar with the parties' submissions, which contain detailed recitations of the pertinent facts. The Court has reviewed the administrative record [#8] and will reference it only as necessary to explain this Decision and Order.

         Plaintiff, born in 1959, claims to be disabled due to depression and migraine headaches, beginning on October 20, 2011. Prior to the alleged onset date, Plaintiff had earned her bachelor's degree in Organizational Management (341) and had held two executive-level jobs. Between approximately 2000 and 2005, Plaintiff worked as the Executive Director of the Southeast Ecumenical Ministries (a “food pantry and senior citizen transportation program”) in Rochester. (346). Between approximately 2005 and October 2011, Plaintiff held the title of vice-president for the Creative Wellness Coalition, a mental-health services organization funded by Monroe County, New York. (343-346). In that position, Plaintiff supervised two employees and approximately fourteen volunteers. (344). When she was not working at those jobs, Plaintiff also operated a “hotdog stand” food cart that she owned, on an “as needed” basis for an auction company. (348-349, 354-356, 358).

         In or about October 2011, Plaintiff was terminated from her job, which caused her a great deal of anger and resentment. (371). Subsequently, Plaintiff maintains that she resumed using alcohol as a coping mechanism. In that regard, Plaintiff had a history of alcohol abuse, but had remained abstinent for 22 years. (135). The termination of Plaintiff's job in 2011 precipitated her return to abusing alcohol. (135) (“She is holding onto a lot of anger towards her old job, which triggers her drinking.”). The resumption of alcohol usage also reportedly exacerbated her long-standing depression, which was otherwise sufficiently-controlled with medication to allow her to work. (80). Plaintiff has been prescribed medication to reduce her “urge to drink alcohol, ” but does not take it. (327). In that regard, Plaintiff indicates that she believes that she can drink without “abusing” alcohol, though she admits that she may be “in denial” about this. (362-363).

         In October 2013, while her claim was still pending at the administrative level, Plaintiff began working full time as a janitor for a manufacturing corporation that owned several office buildings. (352-353). Plaintiff was responsible for maintaining one of the office buildings by herself, and also assisted other janitorial staff at various times with particular projects, such as moving office furniture. (316, 369). Plaintiff indicated that she enjoyed the job (363-364, 367, 370-371), which was far less stressful than her previous executive-level positions. (371). However, Plaintiff indicated that she sometimes missed work, due to having migraine headaches “once or twice a month.” (366).[1]

         At all relevant times, Plaintiff had a close relationship with her adult son, and she also provided assistance to her elderly mother, by taking her shopping regularly. (368). Plaintiff acknowledged that she had support from her family and at least one good friend. (246). Additionally, prior to 2012, Plaintiff had a live-in boyfriend for 18 years. (365). After that relationship ended, Plaintiff began dating again, and by January 2015, was engaged to be married. (178). Plaintiff also takes care of her two pet dogs. (365, 368). Plaintiff owns her own home and a rental property. (21, 315, 767).

         The record contains three separate reports concerning Plaintiff's mental impairments and their effect on her ability to work. On October 2, 2012, Christine Ransom, Ph.D. (“Ransom”) performed a one-time consultative psychological evaluation at the Commissioner's request. Plaintiff reportedly told Ransom that she had been receiving treatment for depression since 1999. (687). However, Plaintiff reportedly denied having any “drug and alcohol history.” (688). After examining Plaintiff, Ransom offered the following opinion, in pertinent part:

This individual will have moderate difficulty following and understanding simple directions and instructions, perform simple tasks independently, maintain attention and concentration for simple tasks, maintain a simple regular schedule, learn simple new tasks. She will have moderate to marked difficulty performing complex tasks, relat[ing] adequately with others and appropriately deal[ing] with stress. Areas of difficulty are secondary to major depressive disorder currently moderate to marked, anxiety disorder NOS currently moderate to marked.

         (689-690).

         Approximately two months later, on November 27, 2012, Plaintiff was examined by Tara Russow, Ph.D. (“Russow”), in connection with vocational rehabilitation and training. (785-789). Russow performed a “comprehensive evaluation of intellectual and personality functioning, ” using a variety of testing methods. (785). Whereas Plaintiff reportedly did not disclose her alcohol problem to Ransom, she admitted to Russow that she had “a history of . . . alcohol dependence.” (785, 786). Russow, stated, in pertinent part:

Results of the MCMI-III personality testing indicate that Ms. Jenkins is not experiencing severe or acute difficulties of clinical nature at this time, which may reflect the efficacy of her current treatment regimen. There were no significant score elevations seen on the scales measuring somatization, mania, drug dependence, trauma, major depression, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, or any form of psychosis. There were mild elevations in her anxiety, dysthymia, and alcohol dependence scores, which is not unexpected given her situation and history.

         (787). Russow indicated that IQ testing showed that Plaintiff is in the average range of intelligence. (787). Russow continued:

Ms. Jenkins demonstrated excellent planning ability, social awareness, pattern recognition, judgment, knowledge of social convention, common sense, and evaluation of consequences even if she chooses to do otherwise. Within the average ranges are her receptive & expressive language abilities, recall of words, logic & abstract reasoning, fund of knowledge, long-term memory, and crystallized intelligence. Weaknesses are seen in her attention, concentration, immediate auditory memory, visualization, auditory perception & recall, sequencing ability, alertness to visual detail, ability to differentiate important from unimportant information, visual processing speed, motor speed, coordination, cognitive adaptation, learning flexibility, and visual perception & response to abstract designs & symbols. Deficits are apparent in her other mathematical knowledge & calculations, numerical reasoning, abstract figure analysis & reconstruction abilities, visual-motor integration, and spatial relations capacity.

         (788). Russow opined that Plaintiff's “relapse into alcohol dependence [might] well undermine her efforts and those of her healthcare providers” to treat her depression. (788). In sum, Russow concluded that Plaintiff was capable of working, but indicated that she could not help Plaintiff determine which type of work would be most suitable for her unless and until she “attain[ed] sobriety.” (789).

         And finally, on November 14, 2013, Diane Morse, M.D. (“Morse”) completed a “Mental Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire.” (800-804). Unlike Ransom and Russow, Morse was a treating physician. However, at the time she completed the report, Ransom had only met with Plaintiff on two or perhaps three occasions, as Plaintiff had just become a patient in or about May of 2013. Morse, an internal medicine physician, had agreed to write prescriptions for Plaintiff's mental health medications, based upon the recommendations of her colleague, Dr. Michael Privitera, M.D. (“Privitera”), a psychiatrist. (891) (“Patient is referred by Diane Morse MD who is willing to be ongoing prescriber after these consultations.”). In any event, on November 14, 2013, Morse completed the aforementioned report, and indicated that Plaintiff was unable to work, due to “depression.” (800-804). Morse opined that Plaintiff was taking medication but had “not improved yet.” (800). Morse indicated, for example, that Plaintiff would have very significant restrictions in her ability to remember work procedures, understand and ...


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