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Booker v. Colvin

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 27, 2014



Hon. John E. Jones III


Plaintiff Jeffrey N. Booker has filed this action seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Booker's claims for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and “insured, ” that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. Booker met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2010. Tr. 26.[1]

Supplemental security income is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind or other disabled individuals who have little or no income. Insured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant's eligibility for supplemental security income benefits.

Booker filed his application for disability insurance benefits on December 8, 2004, [2] alleging that he became disabled on October 1, 2004. Tr. 26, 534. Booker has been diagnosed with numerous impairments, including insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, lumbar disc disease, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, coronary artery disease, degenerative joint disease of the shoulder, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, GERD, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse in remission. Tr. 26. On March 29, 2005, Booker's application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination. Tr. 613.

Hearings were conducted by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on January 18, 2006, February 22, 2006 and again on January 29, 2008; Booker was represented by counsel at all hearings.[3] Tr. 957-75, 978-90, 993-1026. On April 10, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision denying Booker's applications. Tr. 23-35. On November 21, 2009, the Appeals Council declined to grant review. Tr. 7. Booker filed a complaint before this Court on January 20, 2010.[4] Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and this case became ripe for disposition on November 22, 2013 when Booker declined to file a reply brief Booker appeals the ALJ's determination on two grounds: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated the available opinion evidence in concluding that substance abuse contributed to Booker's disability, and (2) the ALJ erred at Step Three of the sequential evaluation process. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

Statement of Relevant Facts

Booker was 38 years of age at his alleged onset date; he has obtained a GED, and is able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language. Tr. 166, 174. Booker's past relevant work included work as a recycling sorter and a small parts assembler, both of which were classified as light work. Tr. 1020. Booker also had past relevant experience as a laborer of stores, which is classified as medium work, and as a construction worker II, which is classified as heavy work. Id All four of Booker's past relevant jobs were unskilled. Id

A. Booker’s Mental Impairments[5]

Booker presented to Steve Mehl, M.A. at Susquehanna Counseling for psychotherapy on February 28, 2005. Tr. 697. At that appointment, Booker seemed angry and depressed; he had “paranoid tendencies” and believed his parole officer was trying to send him to jail. Id. Booker reported previous drug use, but stated that he had ceased using drugs in the mid 1990's. Id. Booker was assessed as having a “low frustration tolerance.” Id. One week later, on March 8, 2005, Booker presented to the York Hospital emergency room. Tr. 818. There he stated that he had ceased drinking in January 2005. Id. Booker felt depressed and was not sleeping well, but denied any intent to harm himself. Id.

On March 24, 2005, Booker attended an initial psychological intake with Anthony Russo, M.D. Tr. 264-71. Booker admitted that his “drinking [was] becoming a problem, ” but claimed to have quit drinking in January 2005. Tr. 264. Booker reported that, prior to quitting, he had been drinking approximately one pint of rum each week. Tr. 265. Booker complained of night terrors and an instant reaction to anger; he stated that “little things set [him] off.” Tr. 264. Booker appeared anxious, angry, and depressed. Tr. 267. His behavior was defensive and hostile, but simultaneously appropriate, interested, and attentive. Id. Booker was anxious, irritable/angry, and depressed. Id. His thought content was slowed, but his thought organization was intact, logical, and coherent. Id.

Booker had occasional auditory hallucinations, as well as suicidal and homicidal ideations. Tr. 268. He had a clear sensorium, intact memory, and was alert and oriented. Id. Booker was able to perform serial sevens and threes well; his decision making ability was intact, though his judgment and insight were only fair. Id. Dr. Russo diagnosed Booker with Major Depressive Disorder, recurrent and non-psychotic, organic mood disorder, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and polysubstance abuse disorder. Tr. 269. Dr. Russo assigned a GAF score of forty.[6] Id.

On April 13, 2005, Mr. Mehl reported that Booker was still drinking, but did not “see it as a problem because he can't afford to drink a lot.” Tr. 699. Booker reported that he only drank with friends on the weekend. Id. Mr. Mehl believed that Booker was “in denial – [he was] not interested in working on his substance abuse problem.” Id. Mr. Mehl stated that, although Booker was depressed, he was not taking his medications regularly. Id.

Booker continued to report to Dr. Russo throughout 2005 and into June 2006. Tr. 242-63. At these appointments, Booker was generally cooperative, had normal speech, fair insight and judgment, and no suicidal or homicidal ideation. Id. He was consistently alert and oriented, and had normal concentration. Id. Booker had intact thought associations, a logical thought process, intact memory, and no impairment to his thought content. Id. However, Booker was often in moderate or severe distress, routinely had a dysphoric affect, and was often anxious, irritable, and depressed. Id. At each of these appointments, Dr. Russo assigned a GAF score of forty and diagnosed Booker with polysubstance abuse disorder, PTSD, major depressive disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Id. In late 2005, Dr. Russo opined that, due to his impairments, Booker was temporarily disabled until December 31, 2006. Tr. 646-47.

On October 12, 2005, Booker returned to Mr. Mehl; on that day, two staff members reported smelling “strong alcohol.” Tr. 702. These workers believed that Booker was under the influence of alcohol. Id. The next day, Mr. Mehl confronted Booker with this information. Tr. 702-03. Booker admitted to drinking, but “refused to state the amount [and] demanded [they] not talk about his drinking.” Tr. 702. Booker became tearful and “used self-pity as an excuse.” Tr. 703. Booker then became withdrawn and stopped participating in the session. Id.

At a January 4, 2006 session with Mr. Mehl, Booker reported that he had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend's brother. Tr. 705. According to Mr. Mehl, “alcohol [was] involved.” Id.

On January 20, 2006, Booker presented to Daniel Aikins, Psy.D. for a neuropsychological evaluation. Tr. 225-33. Booker reported a history of “drinking about a case of alcohol per week, ” and reported that “[o]ccasionally, he will drink a bottle of liquor.” Tr. 225. Booker had a euthymic mood with a blunted affect and was initially guarded. Tr. 227. His thought processes were normal and appropriate to content, and he put forth adequate effort in the assigned tests and tasks. Id. Dr. Aikins stated that Booker was “evasive about his last drug use” but used 1997 as an “anchor” for his sobriety. Id. Dr. Aikins found that Booker's “general cognitive ability is in the Average range of intellectual functioning.” Id.

Objective tests revealed that Booker was “prone to missing relevant information as he scans his environment – information that may be necessary for appropriate responses to people and situations.” Tr. 228. Furthermore, Booker's skill in “processing visual material without making errors” was below average. Tr. 229. Dr. Aikins found that Booker suffered from severe depression and high anxiety with physical manifestations, such as trembling hands, tingling, sweating, and an inability to relax. Tr. 230. Booker was “quite skeptical of people” and had a strong negative self-evaluation; he saw himself as a failure and did not see much of a future for himself. Id.

Dr. Aikins opined that Booker's greatest hindrance to his ability to work was “his ability to relate to other people, ” and believed that Booker would need to maintain sobriety to achieve career success. Tr. 231. Dr. Aikins believed that Booker's mood needed to be managed better, and opined that Booker must avoid heavy manual labor, jobs that required hand-eye coordination under time constraints, and jobs that required attention to fine details. Tr. 232. Dr. Aikins diagnosed Booker with depressive disorder, PTSD, and polysubstance dependence; he assigned a GAF score of fifty.[7] Tr. 231.

On November 6, 2006, Booker presented to Francis Daly, Jr., M.D. for an initial psychiatric evaluation. Tr. 336-40. Booker stated that he had been off of drugs for two or three years, but later stated that he had been off of drugs since 1998. Tr. 337, 338. Booker reported that he still occasionally drank alcohol. Tr. 337. On a scale from one to ten, Booker rated his depression as a ten, and his anxiety as a nine. Id. Booker related that Cymbalta had helped with some of his mental impairments, although he still had symptoms of depression. Tr. 338.

At the appointment, Booker made appropriate eye contact and was cheerful at times. Tr. 339. He had a euthymic mood, but was restless and had only fair insight and judgment. Id. Though Booker's flow of thought was generally coherent, it was at times circumstantial and he had some loose associations. Id. He also expressed “some” paranoid delusions. Id. Dr. Daly diagnosed Booker with major depressive disorder, recurrent with psychotic features; cannabis, heroin, and cocaine abuse in ...

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