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Adorno v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 29, 2017

ERIDALIA ADORNO Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         Plaintiff Eridalia Adorno, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)[2], seeks judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. The Administrative Law Judge's decision was upheld by the Appeals Council and Magistrate Judge Perkin subsequently recommended that Adorno's request for review be denied.[3] Adorno filed objections to Judge Perkin's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) and now argues that the Commissioner's decision should be overturned because: (1) the ALJ erred in finding that the hypothetical question to the vocational expert sufficiently accounted for Adorno's treating psychiatrist's opinion that she had moderate limitations in understanding, remembering and carrying out simple job instructions; and (2) her relative mental stability in the absence of full-time employment cannot constitute substantial evidence to support the ALJ's determination that she is not disabled. For the reasons below, the Court overrules Adorno's objections to the R&R and grants judgment in favor of the Commissioner.

         I

         A

         Adorno was born on January 30, 1975 (R. 279.)[4] In February 2012, when she was thirty-seven years old, she filed applications for both SSI and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), alleging disability due to bipolar depression, depression and anxiety. (R. 123, 279-289.) Adorno initially sought DIB for a disabling condition that commenced “on November 1, 2005, ” (R. 279) and SSI for a disability that “began on April 20, 2009.” (R. 281.) Citing “insufficient evidence, ” the Social Security Administration denied her applications for SSI and DIB on April 5, 2012. (R. 140-47.) Adorno filed a timely request for a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 148.) A July 10, 2013 hearing (where plaintiff was unrepresented) was continued so that medical evidence could be obtained. (R. 98.) Plaintiff then appeared, with counsel, and testified at a second hearing before ALJ William A. Kurlander on October 2, 2013. (R. 37.) At the second hearing, Adorno modified her alleged onset of disability date to February 1, 2011 and voluntarily withdrew her claim for DIB. (R. 42-47.) An impartial vocational expert, Nancy Harter, appeared and testified. (R. 82-91.) Before the ALJ rendered his decision, a third hearing was held on June 17, 2014.[5]

         On July 25, 2014, the ALJ found that Adorno was “not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act.” (R. 31.) Relying on the record evidence, he wrote that Adorno had “worked after the amended alleged disability onset date but this work activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity . . . .” (R. 22.) Consistent with 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c), Adorno had “the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, mood disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder” and that these “impairments cause[d] significant limitations in [her] ability to perform basic work activities during the period being adjudicated . . . .”[6] (Id.)

         The ALJ concluded that Adorno did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled “the criteria of listing 12.04 (Affective disorders) or listing 12.06 (Anxiety related disorders).” (Id.) He found that Adorno did not satisfy these criteria because her “mental impairments [did] not cause at least two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘marked' limitation and ‘repeated' episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration.” (R. 24.). He reported that Adorno exhibited “moderate restriction” in activities of daily living, “moderate difficulties” both in social functioning and “[w]ith regard to concentration, persistence or pace . . . .” (R. 23-24.) Also, during the relevant time period, Adorno “experienced no episodes of decompensation[ ] which have been of ‘extended duration.'” (R. 24.) He found there was no evidence “that minimal increases in mental demands or a change in the environment would cause her to decompensate or that she has the inability to function outside a highly supportive living environment” and there was “no indication that [she] ha[d] the complete inability to function outside the area of her home.” (Id.)

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ cited Adorno's testimony that “she had not driven in two years, but was able to use public transportation, ” that “she attends church with no reported difficulty, visits her boyfriend on the weekends, shops for groceries with her daughter, and has her nails and eyebrows done in a salon, ” and that “she read the Bible and has acted as the representative payee for her son's disability benefits.” (R. 23-24.) The ALJ also cited Adorno's testimony that she “does not spend time with her granddaughter or help take care of her” and “has anxiety moods and prefers to be alone.” (R. 23.) He noted treatment records reflecting “that [Adorno] is irritable with episodes of rage and homicidal ideation, ” and documenting “occasional reports of lack of concentration or focus, and some complaints of memory problems.” (R. 24.) He wrote that Adorno “had several hospitalizations for depression and suicidal gestures” but noted “these episodes have not lasted for at least two weeks . . . .” (Id.) He explained she “seemed depressed . . . and had a ‘flat affect'” at her hearing, but found she “overestimates her functional limitations . . . .” (R. 27.)

         Considering “all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” the ALJ determined Adorno had

the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: unskilled, reasoning level 1-2 work; no more than occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, but no interaction with the general public; and no more than occasional work at exposed heights.

(R. 24.) He explained that “a limitation to unskilled work, requiring only reasoning level 1 or 2, with occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors and no contact with the general public [was] warranted, ” in light of her mental health treatment records documenting “her ongoing symptoms of bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety despite medication and therapy . . . .” (R. 27.) The treatment records “support[ed] her ‘moderate' limitations in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence or pace.” (Id.) However, the record did “not support a finding that [Adorno] is unable to perform the mental demands of unskilled work with social limitations.” (Id.) The ALJ noted that “[e]ven when [plaintiff] was hospitalized for depression and suicide attempts, her mental status typically remained intact” and wrote that “[a]fter June 2012, there is no further inpatient treatment evidenced in the record.” (Id.) Rather, Adorno had continued with “consistent outpatient treatment with regular medication checks with psychiatrists and supportive therapy” and had “become more stable . . . .” (Id.)

         On June 17, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Adorno's request for review. (R. 1-9.) Her complaint was filed in this action on August 14, 2015, after she was granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Compl., ECF No. 3.) She filed a brief and statement of issues in support of her request for review on October 30, 2015 and the Commissioner filed a response on December 2, 2015. (Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 9, Def.'s Resp., ECF No. 10.) Magistrate Judge Perkin issued his R&R recommending denial of Adorno's request for review on May 30, 2017. (R&R, ECF No. 15.) He found “substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding of non-disability” and Adorno “failed to prove that she has an impairment(s) which prevents her from performing substantial gainful activity.” (Id. at 22.) Adorno filed objections on June 6, 2017. (Pl's. Objs., ECF No. 17.) The Commissioner filed a response on June 20, 2017. (Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Objs., ECF No. 19.)

         B

         The Court has reviewed the decision of the ALJ along with the entire administrative record and summarizes here the evidence relevant to Adorno's request for review of the ALJ's finding of non-disability.

         i

         First, Adorno's testimony regarding her employment and her daily life were considered by the ALJ and are relevant to his finding.

         a

         With respect to her employment history, Adorno testified she graduated from high school in 1995. She started an associate's degree program at the Community College of Philadelphia sometime around 2003, but did not finish. (R. 52.) In 2009, Adorno worked for Hersha Hospitality Management for around five months. (R. 53- 54.) She was responsible initially for filling a breakfast bar. (R. 53.) She testified that after having “problems with one of the other coworkers” she “started working at the housekeeping area” but that she “wasn't performing the job well” and “was having trouble with the supervisor too.” (R. 57.) Adorno testified that she quit the hospitality job because she “was working and crying all day.” (Id.) Her only testimony regarding subsequent employment was that she spent around two days working in a fruit factory in 2013. (R. 53, R. 113.) She explained she stopped working at the fruit factory because she “had to work under pressure” and “had to be fast” and she “couldn't handle it” and “couldn't take the pressure.” (R. 57-58.)

         The ALJ asked Adorno if she thought she could work a full time job. (R. 117.) She testified that she felt she could not, explaining “I can't take the pressure of being in a place where a supervisor is on top of me watching me. I can't get up sometimes in the morning. I can't sleep at night even with the medication. Sometimes I have bad nights, good days. I'm constantly changing.” (R. 117.) She explained that with “work, I have to get up every morning and be there on time, and I know sometimes I'm not going [to] even be able to get up from bed.” (R. 118.) Asked if she had problems being around people or whether she had more of an issue with a lack of energy, Adorno testified, “[i]t's lack of energy. Sometimes I just want to be alone too.” (R. 117.)

         b

         The ALJ considered Adorno's testimony that she suffers from depression, explaining that in an average month, she has “more bad days” than good days. (R. 70.) Adorno explained that “[i]f I'm feeling very depressed, then I don't want to see nobody. I don't go nowhere.” (R. 69.) She testified that on bad days, she would be “sleeping all day.” (R. 70.) She also testified that she went to church once a week in a church van and, with transportation assistance from two friends, would visit with a boyfriend on weekends. (R. 61-63.) She explained she did not get to see her boyfriend “much unless I go to his job” where she had visited him “one or two times.” (R. 67-68.) Asked what determines whether she goes to see her boyfriend or not, Adorno said “[m]y mood.” (R. 69.) Adorno testified that she had last driven a car sometime in 2011 and “rarely” took the bus to go places. (R. 55-56.) Instead, a friend would take her to a salon to have her nails or eyebrows done “once a month.” (R. 64-67). She testified that when at home, she sometimes microwaved frozen dinners and watched telenovelas, although not following the plotline for an entire episode. (R. 65-66.) She testified that she did not do much reading because she “can't focus.” (R. 67.)

         In December 2012, Adorno traveled on her own to Puerto Rico to visit family for a month or two “because of depression and all that stuff that I was going through.” (R. 58.) Asked why she was hospitalized a number of times in 2012 before going to Puerto Rico, Adorno testified that her youngest “daughter was raped by a boyfriend that [plaintiff] had.” (R. 74.) While in Puerto Rico, Adorno stayed at her sister's house, leaving only to go to her mother's house.” (R. 59-61.) She testified that she “wasn't there to have a good time.” (R. 61.)

         At the time of her October 2, 2013 testimony, Adorno lived with her eighteen-year-old daughter - a student - and her granddaughter, but she did not take care of her granddaughter. (R. 49-51.) In addition to her eighteen-year-old daughter, Adorno testified that she had children who were eleven, sixteen and twenty. (R. 72.). She testified that she had voluntarily relinquished custody of her minor children to their father because she could not take care of them. (R. 72.) She explained that she “couldn't get up in the morning to . . . get my daughter prepared to go to school. She . . . was going to school late. I couldn't provide a home for them. I just couldn't take the pressure of handling somebody else.” (Id.) Despite this testimony, in June 2014 Adorno ...


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