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Czerska v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

September 20, 2013

ZOFIA CZERSKA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN CW. COLVIN Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR REMAND

THOMAS M. DIGIROLAMO, Magistrate Judge.

Zofia Czerska ("Plaintiff" or "Claimant") brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), and Childhood Disability Insurance Benefits ("CIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.§§ 401-433, 402(d) and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C.§§ 1381-83(c) Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Pl.'s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 12), Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Def.'s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 16) and Plaintiff's Reply (Pl.'s Reply, ECF No. 19). No hearing is deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, Plaintiff's Motion for Remand is GRANTED.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on August 2, 2007 and December 3, 2007 respectively. R. at 183-88. She also applied for CIB on February 2, 2008. R. at 5. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. R. at 96-99, 101-08, 113-16. On March 1, 2010, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. R. at 46-85. Claimant was represented by counsel. On May 7, 2010, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision in this matter and awarded a closed period of disability from January 2, 2003 through June 2, 2008 based on a finding that Claimant was disabled. R. at 24-41. The ALJ found that on June 2, 2008, medical improvement occurred that related to the ability to work and Claimant has been able to perform substantial gainful activity from that date through the date of the decision.[1] Specifically, beginning June 2, 2008, the ALJ found that considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, she has been able to perform her past relevant work and a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Thus, it was found, disability ended on June 2, 2008. The ALJ failed to adjudicate Claimant's claim for CIB.

On review, the Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's period of closed disability with respect to her claims for DIB and SSI and additionally found that Claimant was also entitled to CIB based on this same closed period. R. at 5-7. Plaintiff argues that the finding that her disability ceased as of June 2, 2008 is not supported by substantial evidence. She argues that she is entitled to continuing disability benefits.

II. Standard of Review

The role of this court on review is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(1994 & Supp. V 1999); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1202 (4th Cir. 1995); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence presented. Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984). It is such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion, and must be sufficient to justify a refusal to direct a verdict if the case were before a jury. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). This court cannot try the case de novo or resolve evidentiary conflicts, but rather must affirm a decision supported by substantial evidence. Id.

IV. Discussion

Plaintiff makes the following arguments which have been summarized and reordered for sake of clarity: (1) the ALJ erred in finding that her condition medically improved as of June 2, 2008; (2) the ALJ relied on a misdated treatment note; (3) the ALJ erred in not affording the consultative examiner's opinion significant weight; (4) the ALJ erred in not affording her treating psychiatrist's opinion controlling weight; (5) the ALJ erred his findings regarding Listing 12.04; (6) the ALJ erred in finding she could perform her past relevant work; and (7) the ALJ erred in his credibility determination. While the Court has reviewed each argument listed above, the critical issue in this case is whether the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff medically improved is supported by substantial evidence. A medical improvement is defined as any decrease in the medical severity of the impairment which was present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that Claimant was disabled or continued to be disabled. 20 CFR § 404.1594(b)(1). Such a determination "must be based on changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs, and/or laboratory findings associated with your impairment(s), and must be related to the ability of the claimant to perform work activities." 20 CFR § 404.1594(b)(1), 404.1594(b) (3). The government bears the initial burden of proving medical improvement i.e., that claimant's disability has ended. Pack v. Heckler, 740 F.2d 292, 294 (4th Cir.1984). After careful review of the record in this case, the Court finds that Government failed to meet this burden.

There is no dispute as to the overwhelming evidence which led to a conclusion of a closed period of disability on behalf of Plaintiff. The record evidences a long history of bipolar disorder for which Plaintiff was under consistent treatment. In order to properly analyze whether Claimant experienced marked improvement, it is useful to lay out a framework of Plaintiff's condition which led to the finding of disability prior to the date at which the ALJ found medical improvement.

A. Overview of Claimant's Mental Impairment

Beginning in January, 2007, Plaintiff was treated by psychiatrist, Dr. Kirk Denicoff, who saw her approximately every two weeks. R. at 326-59, 394. On September 26, 2007, Dr. Denikoff completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire in which he indicated that Claimant was either limited or was not able to perform satisfactorily all of the mental abilities or aptitudes to complete even unskilled work. R. at 362, 394-95. He expressed that Claimant suffered from marked restrictions in daily living and extreme restrictions in maintaining social functioning and maintaining persistence, concentration or pace. He further opined she experienced four or more episodes of decompensation within a twelve month period, each of at least two weeks duration. Id. at 362. Dr. Denicoff also indicated that as of September 26, 2007, Claimant's condition had not been stabilized and that she had a residual disease process that had resulted in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands would be predicted to cause decompensation. R. at 395.

On October 12, 2007, Dr. Charles T. Gordon, psychiatrist indicated that he had treated Claimant for approximately seven years and reported that her treatment included medication (antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics) and individual and group counseling. R. at 127. He indicated that during depressive phases, Claimant experiences sad and irritable mood, anhedonia, sleep and appetite disturbance, severe anxiety, multiple somatic complaints, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, impaired concentration and suicidal ideation. Id. During manic periods, she exhibited euphoria and/or extreme irritability, impatience, pressured speech and behavior, excessive energy, impulsivity, poor judgment leading to irrational dangerous actions, delusions and hallucinations. Id. He further reported that Claimant had exhibited many severe manic, depressive and mixed episodes which have been treatment refractory and resulted in serious impairment in social, occupational, family and academic functioning. Id. Significantly, he reported that during her treatment period, there were few periods of true stability and that she was impaired by Bipolar Disorder symptomatology approximately 90% of the time. Id.

On April 23, 2008, Claimant was seen by consultative examiner George Moore, D.O. at the request of the Maryland State Disability Determination Services. R. at 414. Based on the evaluation, Dr. Moore indicated that Claimant had multiple and quite severe symptoms of depression and "mixed state." R. at 419. She had extremely poor concentration by her report and some testing and that she did not have concentration sufficient to be persistent on tasks. R. at 419. He found that she lacked the ability to cope with work related stresses and demands and the ability to cope with the stress and demands that accompany social interactions. He also assessed Claimant to have a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) of 50 defined as serious symptoms (e.g., suicidal ideation, severe obsessional rituals, frequent shoplifting), or any serious impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning (e.g., no friends, unable to keep a job). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), 32 ...


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