United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
DARYL M. ECKSTEIN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
NORA BARRY FISCHER, District Judge.
Daryl M. Eckstein ("Plaintiff") brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 ("the Act"). (Docket No. 1). This matter comes before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment. (Docket Nos. 10, 12). The record has been developed at the administrative level. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment  is denied, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment  is granted.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff applied for DIB on December 8, 2009, and for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on December 14, 2009, claiming a disability onset of June 9, 2009. (R. at 111-19). His SSI claim was denied on December 21, 2009 because he was ineligible based on his income, (R. at 65-72), and his DIB claim was then denied on June 17, 2010, (R. at 63-64). Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing as to the DIB determination. (R. at 75, 77-80). This hearing was conducted on August 10, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at which Plaintiff, represented by Elizabeth A. Smith, and Patricia J. Murphy, an impartial vocational expert, testified. (R. at 18).
On September 14, 2011, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued his ruling, which was unfavorable to Plaintiff. ( Id. ). On October 6, 2011, Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision regarding DIB to the Appeals Council. (R. at 12-14). Plaintiff's attorney also submitted a letter to the Appeals Council, dated March 28, 2012, arguing that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and the Council should award Plaintiff benefits, or alternatively, should remand the case. (R. at 270-73). On June 3, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the decision of the ALJ the Commissioner's final decision. (R. at 1). Plaintiff filed his Complaint on July 31, 2013. (Docket No. 1). Defendant filed her Answer on October 1, 2013. (Docket No. 2). The parties then filed cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 10; 12). Plaintiff also filed a Concise Statement of Material Facts. (Docket No. 7). The matter having been fully briefed, (Docket Nos. 11; 13; 15), is now ripe for disposition.
III. STATEMENT OF FACTS
A. General Background
Plaintiff was born on December 3, 1963 and was forty-seven years old at the time of his administrative hearing. (R. at 111). He has been married since 1987 and has two children. (R. at 111-12, 620). As of December 2009, Plaintiff's income included Social Security and $624 monthly in "sick pay" from Met Life and Traco. (R. at 116). Plaintiff's wife is employed by HP Starr and earned $2, 666 monthly. (R. at 117).
Plaintiff received his high school diploma and completed vocationAL training for heavy equipment repair. (R. at 149). From 1984 until June 9, 2009, he worked at a company called Traco, which manufactures windows. (R. at 144, 621). Plaintiff performed a variety of jobs during his time at Traco. Most recently, he worked as a line leader, which job entailed passing out orders for jobs, making sure that materials and tools were ready, keeping the line moving, and performing quality inspections. (R. at 144). He supervised approximately eight other people. (R. at 145). In the past, he worked in quality control for over six years. (R. at 620).
Plaintiff, however, began developing depression and anxiety in 2009, which conditions hindered his job performance. ( Id. ). For example, Plaintiff started to experience symptoms of panic attacks during his commute to work and during the workday. ( Id. ). He consequently went on medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act; in June 2009, he was placed on short-term disability. ( Id. ).
In his application for DIB, Plaintiff claimed that he has been unable to work since June 9, 2009 due to depression and anxiety. (R. at 143). He explained that his depression interfered with his concentration and caused low self-esteem. ( Id. ). Additionally, stress caused him to feel nervous and sometimes to experience panic attacks. ( Id. ). In his Self-Report, Plaintiff described his daily activities as including taking his medication; eating breakfast; cleaning up; researching jobs on the internet; taking care of his dogs; eating lunch; watching television or napping; cooking supper; cleaning up; going out with his wife, if the couple needed to spend time together; and then going to bed. (R. at 152). Plaintiff reported that his illness interfered with his sleep because at times he wakes up experiencing a panic attack. (R. at 153). He denied problems with personal care. (R. at 153-54). He prepared his own meals, including "sandwiches [and] complete meals" on a daily basis, although at times his illness caused him to not feel like cooking or eating. (R. at 154). Plaintiff also performed house and yard work such as cleaning and doing repairs, for which he required no help or encouragement. ( Id. ). Plaintiff was able to go outside and get around "quite often, " and drove a car. (R. at 155). He often went out alone, although he preferred to have family with him because he was afraid of experiencing panic attacks. ( Id. ). With respect to hobbies and social activities, Plaintiff generally played computer games, watched television, walked his dogs, and drew, depending on his mood. (R. at 156, 159). He described experiencing panic attacks that depleted his energy, and that his depression interfered with his ability to think. (R. at 157, 159).
B. Mental Health Treatment
As a child, Plaintiff experienced some depression after he witnessed his mother pass away from a blood clot that travelled to her lungs. (R. at 619). Plaintiff was ten or eleven years old at the time. ( Id. ). Since then, Plaintiff has occasionally gone through depressive periods throughout his life, which have lasted up to a month at a time. (R. at 619-20). During said periods, Plaintiff's symptoms included feeling sad, isolation, guilt, lack of motivation and interest, and not gaining pleasure from activities. (R. at 620). He has never been psychiatrically hospitalized. ( Id. ).
1. Dr. Fiorina
Plaintiff claimed a disability onset date of June 9, 2009. (R. at 143). He treated with Dr. Michael Fiorina of Fiorina-Wall Family Practice on several occasions during 2009 and 2010. (R. at 274-80). On January 22, 2009, Plaintiff complained of chest palpitations and shortness of breath, which were determined to be signs of panic attacks. (R. at 279). These symptoms were generally worse at night. ( Id. ). Plaintiff occasionally suffered attacks at work, rendering him unable to perform his duties. ( Id. ). Dr. Fiorina ordered a cardiology stress test, remarking that if said test was negative, he would consider changing Plaintiff's medications, which included Celexa and Xanax. (R. at 280). Plaintiff followed up with Dr. Fiorina on February 11, 2009, and continued complaining of panic attacks, reporting that they occurred at night, and only on weekdays. (R. at 275). Dr. Fiorina noted that Plaintiff's stress test showed normal results. (R. at 275, 281-86). On May 11, 2009, Dr. Fiorina again noted that Plaintiff's panic attacks occurred while he was asleep, and that his therapist had told him the attacks were work-related. (R. at 275, 616). During their multiple visits, Dr. Fiorina recorded that Plaintiff had no side effects from his medications, which included Klonopin and Celexa. Dr. Fiorina increased Plaintiff's dosage of Klonopin and directed him to follow-up with therapist Dr. Drolet. (R. at 276, 617).
2. Dr. Drolet
Plaintiff began seeing Dr. Susan Drolet, a Psychologist at Wellness Works, on May 15, 2009. (R. at 560). In her initial evaluation, Dr. Drolet assessed that Plaintiff was depressed and displayed poor judgment, attention, and memory. (R. at 565). His thoughts were clear and his speech was good. ( Id. ). At this appointment, Plaintiff completed a Beck Anxiety Inventory,  wherein he marked that he had been moderately or severely bothered by most of the listed symptoms during the past week, with a total score of forty-two. (R. at 567). In another questionnaire relating to symptoms of depression,  Plaintiff scored twenty-three. (R. at 568-69). Based on her assessment, Dr. Drolet diagnosed Plaintiff with Major Depressive Disorder,  "severe" occupational problems, and opined that Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning score equaled 45. (R. at 565).
Following this assessment, Plaintiff began meeting with Dr. Drolet for weekly therapy sessions. (R. at 570-606, 611-15, 633-34). Dr. Drolet's records from these sessions include a check-the-box form, on which she rated Plaintiff's depression and anxiety. ( Id. ). Dr. Drolet also summarized these ratings in a chart. (R. at 630-32). From October 1, 2010 through July 28, 2011, Dr. Drolet marked Plaintiff's depression as "moderate" and anxiety as "severe" on the majority of the visits. ( Id. ).
In addition to rating Plaintiff's anxiety and depression, she handwrote notes regarding each session. (R. at 570-606, 611-15, 633-34). These notes are mostly brief, not in sentence form, and seem to reflect certain topics discussed in Plaintiff's therapy, rather than detail his current state. ( Id. ). Many of Dr. Drolet's notes speak to Plaintiff's mental health status and indicate ongoing anxiety and depressive symptoms. (R. at 570-606, 611-15, 633-34). For example, on May 5, 2011, Dr. Drolet reported that Plaintiff's anxiety symptoms have been "debilitating for several days." (R. at 576). Plaintiff's mood sometimes fluctuated during the day. (R. at 633). Plaintiff reported ongoing issues with anxiety and depression, as well as feeling like his thinking was "off." (R. at 573, 574, 582). He had difficulty especially in crowds of people. (R. at 585). Plaintiff additionally was experiencing a number of social stressors other than his mental ilness, such as his father passing away around April 2011 and various issues within his immediate family. (R. at 575-80, 596-98, 601). Plaintiff worked on integrating skills learned in therapy, such as self-talk, meditation, exercise, as well as his as-needed medication, to control his symptoms. (R. at 571, 585, 586, 590, 592).
Dr. Drolet's notes provide some evidence as to Plaintiff's daily activities. (R. at 570-606, 611-15, 633-34). To this end, although Plaintiff continued experiencing psychiatric symptoms, he engaged in various activities, such as working on his motorcycle, running errands for his family, going out with his family, and occasionally socializing with friends. (R. at 578, 593, 602-605). Similarly, Dr. Drolet worked with Plaintiff on trying to "keep busy." (R. at 571, 575, 600). For example, on January 14, 2011, she gave Plaintiff a homework assignment to create a list of things with which to fill his day. (R. at 592).
Dr. Drolet frequently references discussions about Plaintiff returning to work. (R. at 570-606, 611-15, 633-34). Plaintiff complained of a "fear of having to call off, " and being "unable to function for [a] sustained period." (R. at 576). In spite of these concerns, Plaintiff talked about his active efforts to decide the industry in which he would like to work, (R. at 586, 606), applying to various jobs, (R. at 576, 585, 587, 594, 598, 600, 602, 604), going on job interviews (R. at 580, 589, 590, 591), and possibly get more education to advance his career prospects, (R. at 573, 584, 603). Dr. Drolet reported on March 2, 2011 that Plaintiff was focusing on finding a job where the stress level would be low. (R. at 585).
3. Dr. Matta
At the same time that Plaintiff saw Dr. Drolet for weekly therapy sessions, he also met with Dr. Mark A. Matta, D.O. for medication management every few months, beginning on June 12, 2009. (R. at 287-91, 607-10). In his Evaluation note, Dr. Matta reported that Plaintiff began to have panic attacks in 2009, although his depression had started toward the end of 2008. (R. at 289). He was taking time off work because he felt drained after experiencing panic attacks. ( Id. ). Dr. Matta increased Plaintiff's Celexa dosage, discontinued Klonopin, and prescribed Plaintiff Ativan. (R. at 291).
Dr. Matta next saw Plaintiff on August 7, 2009. (R. at 288). At this visit, Plaintiff reported "some overall improvement" with his symptoms. ( Id. ). Dr. Matta observed Plaintiff to appear less anxious. ( Id. ). He increased Plaintiff's Celexa and Ativan prescriptions. ( Id. ).
Over the course of Plaintiff's next three visits with Dr. Matta, on November 12, 2009, February 12, 2010, and May 6, 2010, Dr. Matta consistently noted that Plaintiff denied side effects from his medications. (R. at 287, 609-10). Plaintiff continued experiencing anxiety, although Dr. Matta's notes indicate that the overall anxiety level was decreasing. ( Id. ). As a result, Dr. Matta made no changes to Plaintiff's medication regimen during these appointments. ( Id. ). At their July 24, 2010 appointment, Plaintiff described his mood as "good" and further reported that his panic attacks were less frequent and of decreasing intensity. (R. at 610). Again, Dr. Matta continued Plaintiff on his current medications, recording that Plaintiff experienced no side effects. ( Id. ).
Similarly, on March 3, 2011, Plaintiff was compliant with his medications and denied side effects. (R. at 609). Dr. Matta noted that Plaintiff was "job hunting" and frustrated with respect to same. ( Id. ). His affect was cooperative and pleasant. ( Id. ). No changes were made to Plaintiff's medications. ( Id. ). Plaintiff saw Dr. Matta for another medication check on June 9, 2011. (R. at 608). Plaintiff again denied side effects and reported mostly normal appetite and sleep. ( Id. ). He described his mood as "good, " but reported ongoing anxiety, "particularly[, ] problems with crowds." ( Id. ). On this note, Plaintiff felt claustrophobic when going to crowded places, such as church or shopping. ( Id. ). Dr. Matta decreased Plaintiff's Ativan, and otherwise continued his medications. ( Id. ).
As of July 22, 2011, at which time Plaintiff supplied a "Claimant's Medications" form for Social Security, he was prescribed Celexa, Ativan, and Klonopin. (R. at 269). He noted that he took Ativan at bedtime to treat his panic attacks, and Klonopin for anxiety during the day. ( Id. ). Additionally, Plaintiff stated that he experiences some side effects, including that Klonopin caused ...