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Hartman v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

July 2, 2019





         Plaintiff Devon Page Hartman (“Hartman”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying in part her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Both parties have filed summary judgment motions (Docs. #12, #13), which have been referred to this Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).


         For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) conclusion that Hartman was not disabled under the Act prior to August 13, 2017, is not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #13) be DENIED, Hartman's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #12) be GRANTED IN PART to the extent it seeks remand and DENIED IN PART to the extent it seeks an award of benefits, and that, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this case be REMANDED to the ALJ for further proceedings consistent with this Recommendation.

         II. REPORT

         A. Procedural History

         After Hartman's applications for DIB and SSI were denied at the initial level (Tr. 206-11) and on reconsideration (Tr. 215-16, 235-36), she timely requested an administrative hearing, which was held on May 24, 2017, before ALJ JoErin O'Leary (Tr. 52-102). Hartman, who was represented by attorney John Tsiros, testified at the hearing, as did her cousin, Richard Jewell, and vocational expert Susan Lyon. (Id.). On September 29, 2017, ALJ O'Leary issued a partially favorable written decision. (Tr. 16-44). Specifically, ALJ O'Leary concluded that Hartman was not disabled prior to August 13, 2017; however, she became disabled as of that date and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision. (Tr. 43). On July 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-6). Hartman timely filed for judicial review of the final decision on September 14, 2018. (Doc. #1).

         B. Background

         1. Hartman's Reports and Testimony

         Hartman was 45 years old as of her alleged onset date of May 3, 2013. (Tr. 340). She dropped out of high school but later earned her GED. (Tr. 64, 346). She worked in various jobs (including as an administrative clerk and an electric sign assembler) from September 1997 to December 2010, when her then-boyfriend “stalked” her on the job, appearing at her workplace to threaten her, and her employer decided it “didn't want the liability” associated with those actions. (Tr. 68, 345, 349, 400, 415). Subsequently, Hartman's boyfriend held her captive in their home in Texas, abusing her mentally and physically, and depriving her of food. (Tr. 59, 63, 80-81). Only with the help of family members was she rescued and returned to Michigan, weighing just 74 pounds at the time. (Tr. 63-64, 93). Hartman now alleges disability primarily as a result of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), as well as high blood pressure, kidney failure, an electrolyte imbalance, and breathing difficulties. (Tr. 342, 357, 375, 380, 387).

         At the time of the administrative hearing, Hartman testified that she doesn't sleep well, often doesn't bother getting dressed, often “zone[s] out, ” and is not even able to pay attention to a TV show. (Tr. 77-78). She has racing thoughts, cannot always remember what she was saying, and cannot retain information she reads. (Tr. 78, 80). She further testified that, for approximately 12-15 hours per day, she stays in her bedroom and colors in adult coloring books, which helps calm her. (Tr. 79). 2. The Relevant Medical Evidence[1]

         The earliest medical evidence in the record reveals that Hartman was hospitalized in Texas from June 22-26, 2010, when she overdosed on Tylenol PM after a fight with her abusive boyfriend. (Tr. 482-88). Twice in 2011, she presented to the hospital (once with a broken arm, and once with a concussion) after her daughter beat her. (Tr. 489-97). Other evidence indicates that Hartman was suffering from alcohol dependence[2] and its effects all the way through early 2015. (Tr. 498-503 (presented to the emergency room in October 2011 with intractable nausea, vomiting, and dehydration after drinking “a lot” the night before), 667-79 (hospitalized from February 8-11, 2014 after suffering a seizure related to alcohol withdrawal), 581-95 (hospitalized from June 17-22, 2014 with severe alcohol intoxication/withdrawal and hyponatremia; “spousal abuse” noted)).

         On June 30, 2014, Hartman's primary care physician (in Texas) prescribed Zoloft for her increasingly severe anxiety and depression, but at a follow-up visit two weeks later, she reported feeling like she was “falling apart” and that the Zoloft made her feel worse. (Tr. 638-39). On December 12, 2014, she was admitted to the hospital with acute renal failure and possible suicidal ideations. (Tr. 718). A few weeks later, she was again hospitalized with nausea, vomiting, and rectal bleeding, reporting that she was depressed and drinking more vodka every day. (Tr. 751).

         On January 26, 2015, Hartman underwent a psychological examination with Andrea Pellegrini, Psy.D.[3] (Tr. 789-94). She complained of depression and anxiety but indicated that she did not have insurance and could not afford mental health treatment. (Tr. 790). When asked about her current symptoms, Hartman reported:

[D]aily crying spells, loss of interest, persistent sadness, withdraws and isolates, psychomotor and cognitive slowing, “unable to think straight, ” unable to focus, easily forgetful, “sleeps all day, ” persistent fatigue, poor appetite with weight loss, low energy level, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, thoughts of death, ruminative, negative thought process, thoughts of impending doom, anxiety, nervousness, shakes, feels dizzy, experiences shortness of breath, feels weak, bites nails and skin, scratches skin, hives given anxiety, feels “stuck, ” feels “like she's drowning, ” feels unsafe, feels fearful, does not like to leave home, and “wants to escape, ” with a sense of urgency.

(Id.). Although Hartman told Dr. Pellegrini several times that she was “not suicidal, ” she did admit to some suicidal ideation the week before, “which frightened her.” (Id.). On mental status examination, she was visibly in “significant distress … often shaking and crying.” (Tr. 792). She was unable to interpret proverbs correctly, her mood appeared significantly depressed, and her affect was tearful, but her concentration and attention appeared “adequate” and her judgment “fair.” (Tr. 792-93). In relevant part, Dr. Pellegrini diagnosed Hartman with major depressive disorder (recurrent, severe, without psychosis) and generalized anxiety disorder. (Tr. 794). She characterized Hartman's prognosis as “guarded” and then opined:

Devon presented as overwhelmed and distressed due to multiple stressors to include an abusive relationship. She indicated she lost her job given her medical issues. However, aside from physical limitations, she does not appear capable from a psychological perspective of working adequately within a competitive work environment. She seemed highly preoccupied and thus cannot likely sustain concentration and persist in work-related activity at a reasonable pace at this time.


         On February 15, 2015, state agency psychologist Michele Chappuis, Ph.D., reviewed Hartman's records and completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) Assessment and a Psychiatric Review Technique. (Tr. 141-48). Dr. Chappuis noted that Hartman suffered from an affective disorder (as defined in Listing 12.04) and a substance addiction disorder (as defined in Listing 12.09). (Tr. 142-43). Nevertheless, Dr. Chappuis opined that Hartman was able to carry out routine 1-2 step tasks, respond to ordinary changes in the workplace, interact with others, and maintain focus on basic activities. (Tr. 146).

         On July 2, 2015, Hartman underwent a consultative psychological evaluation with Michael Brady, Ph.D.[4] (Tr. 796-800). She reported anxiety and depression, low energy, fatigue, lack of appetite, tachycardia, shaking, trouble sleeping, uncontrolled itching, nausea, and crying. (Tr. 796). She indicated that she did not leave her house and did not like to be around people or commotion. (Id.). She reported having been married twice - first to a man who was abusive, and then to a police officer who was shot in the line of duty. (Tr. 797). Dr. Brady indicated that the results of Hartman's mental status examination “revealed mild abnormalities in concentration, general knowledge, memory, judgment, abstract reasoning, and calculation tasks”; that she met the criteria for depressive disorder and anxiety disorder; and that her prognosis was poor. (Tr. 799). With respect to Hartman's functional limitations, Dr. Brady opined as follows:

Her ability to relate and interact with others, includ[ing] coworkers and supervisors, is somewhat impaired especially during flare ups. She was occasionally tearful throughout the evaluation. Her depression and anxiety could affect her interpersonal relationships in the workplace especially during flare ups. Her ability to understand, recall and complete tasks and expectations does appear to be significantly impaired especially during flare ups. She is able to perform simple tasks with no major limitations. She struggled with tasks that have multiple steps and increased complexity. Her ability to maintain concentration does seem somewhat impaired especially during flare ups. As a result [o]f her emotional state she may often be distracted and her effectiveness and performance will likely be limited and slowed. Her ability to withstand the normal stressors associated with a workplace setting is somewhat impaired.


         Shortly thereafter, on July 20, 2015, Bruce Douglass, Ph.D., reviewed Hartman's updated records and completed a second Mental RFC Assessment and Psychiatric Review Technique. (Tr. 164-81). Dr. Douglass noted that Hartman suffered from an affective disorder (as defined in Listing 12.04), an anxiety-related disorder (as defined in Listing 12.06), and a substance addiction disorder (as defined in Listing 12.09). (Tr. 173). Dr. Douglass then opined that Hartman was mildly limited in her activities of daily living, and moderately limited in both social functioning and maintaining ...

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