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Marlyn L. Taliaferro v. Michael J. Astrue

May 23, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge.


I. Background

On April 28, 2010, Marlyn Louise Taliaferro ("Taliaferro," "plaintiff," or "claimant") brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of an adverse final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "defendant"). Plaintiff alleges that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in finding that drug and/or alcohol addiction ("DAA") was a material factor in her disability and that she is entitled to a reversal of the ALJ‟s decision, or, in the alternative, that the case be remanded for further factual determinations regarding the materiality of plaintiff‟s DAA. The Commissioner asserts that the ALJ‟s decision should be upheld because the conclusion is supported by substantial evidence in the record. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

A. Procedural History

On February 9, 2007, plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34 and supplemental security income benefits, under Title XVI of SSA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83f, alleging a disability onset due to "bipolar disorder and depression" on December 31, 1999.*fn1 (R. at 99-110 (ECF No. 5-4).) On June 12, 2007, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") sent a notice to plaintiff that her claims were denied. (R. at 71-80 (ECF No. 5-4).) Plaintiff made a timely request for a hearing, which was held before the ALJ on July 29, 2008.

(R. at 89 (ECF No. 5-4).) Present at the hearing before the ALJ were plaintiff, her attorney and a vocational expert (the "VE"). (R. at 24-67 (ECF No. 5-2).) The ALJ issued a decision favorable to the Commissioner on September 3, 2008, claimant‟s subsequent request to the Appeals Committee was denied, and the appeal now comes before this court.

On February 14, 2011, the court heard oral argument. The parties agreed that the court must resolve two issues: (1) whether the ALJ erred in rejecting the stated limitation of plaintiff, i.e., the "marked" limitation, made by the consultative examiner ("CE"); and (2) whether the burden of proof regarding materiality of DAA shifts to the Commissioner or remains with the claimant.

B. Factual Background

Plaintiff was 52 years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. at 32 (ECF No. 5-2).) She had prior work experience as a mail clerk, laborer, clerk and security officer. (R. at 151-53 (ECF No. 5-6).)

On the amended disability onset date (April 24, 2006), plaintiff was admitted to the psychiatric ward at a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center facility ("UPMC Braddock") after pulling a knife on her boyfriend. The treating physician noted that plaintiff‟s substance use "probably triggered her recent violent behavior." (R. at 377, 380 (ECF No. 5-9).) Plaintiff spent approximately one week in the psychiatric ward at UPMC Braddock beginning on the date of her alleged disability onset, where she was examined and treated by Dr. Khairul Alam ("Dr. Alam"). (R. at 377-428 (ECF NO. 5-9).) Specifically, Dr. Alam noted that plaintiff had a record of "stabbing people in the past," pulling guns on people while intoxicated, and smoking $2,000 worth of crack cocaine in the weeks leading up to the incident that required her to receive treatment at UPMC Braddock. (Id.) At her discharge, Dr. Alam assessed a global assessment of functioning ("GAF") *fn2 score of 55, an increase of 30 points over plaintiff‟s GAF score upon admission. (R. 377, 382 (ECF No. 5-9).)
From May 3, 2006 to May 25, 2006, plaintiff was admitted to a rehabilitation facility called White Deer Run. (R. at 485 (ECF No. 5-10).) Barclay M. Wilson, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, and Darcie Hostetler, Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner, examined and interviewed plaintiff at White Deer Run.*fn3 (R. at 489 (ECF NO. 5-10).) Plaintiff‟s "Axis I diagnoses [were] cocaine dependence, alcohol dependence and bipolar disorder." (R. at 14 (ECF No. 5-2), 489 (ECF NO. 5-10).) The records from the rehabilitation facility shed light on the extent of the plaintiff‟s lifelong history of DAA.

(R. at 484 (ECF No. 5-10).) According to the report, plaintiff told the examining staff that she began using alcohol at age sixteen, marijuana at age eighteen, and crack cocaine at age thirty-six. (Id.) She used intravenous heroin for one year, and "ha[d] been smoking tobacco for thirty four years." (Id.)

A letter from White Deer Run‟s medical records department to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination assessed a twenty-point increase, from 45 to 65,*fn4 in plaintiff‟s score on the GAF. (R. at 658 (ECF No. 5-12).) The ALJ noted that the latter number was indicative of only a "mild" psychological impairment, and found the discrepancy was evidence of the plaintiff‟s inherent functionality versus her reduced ability to function while abusing substances. (R. at 14 (ECF No. 5-2).)

Plaintiff did not exhibit any further substance abuse after June 2006. (R. at 15 (ECF No. 5-2).) From June 12, 2006 to December 21, 2006, plaintiff was a patient and resident at The Turning Point at Washington rehabilitation center. (R. at 647 (ECF No. 5-12).) There, she completed two phases of the rehabilitation program, as well as fulfilling the requirements of "community leader," and was involved in 12-step meetings. (Id.) Patricia J. Lutz, M.Ed. ("Lutz"), wrote: "It is difficult for Marlyn to maintain a normal life without medication, involvement in regular therapy and regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous." (Id.)

On April 13, 2007, plaintiff took part in a clinical psychological evaluation performed by Dr. Sandy Vujnovic ("Dr. Vujnovic"). (R. at 651 (ECF No. 5-12).) Dr. Vujnovic‟s Axis I diagnoses of plaintiff were bipolar disorder, not otherwise specified,*fn5 obsessive-compulsive disorder,*fn6 and a history of alcohol and cocaine dependence and abuse. (R. at 655 (ECF 5-12).) Plaintiff reported that she was "especially prone to excessive and aggressive behaviours [sic]" when she was using drugs. (R. at 652 (ECF No. 5-12).) Plaintiff offered a "somewhat rambling, inarticulate account" of what she meant by her uncontrollable actions and bipolar disorder. (R. at 651 (ECF No. 5-12).) On February 6, 2008, plaintiff was examined by Dr. Michael Malayil ("Dr. Malayil").

(R. at 887-88 (ECF No. 5-15).) This mental status exam revealed that plaintiff smoked "a few cigarettes a day," but had been otherwise "clean for two years." (R. at 877 (ECF No. 5-15).) She had periods of depression, but denied any suicidal or homicidal thoughts, and her "cognitive functions [were] fairly intact." (Id.) Her Axis I diagnoses were major depressive disorder, and "rule-out" bipolar affective disorder. (Id.) Dr. Malayil assessed plaintiff‟s GAF score at "about 60." (Id.) Plaintiff testified that she volunteered to play bingo with senior citizens four days each week. (Id.) She also ...

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