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Mathis v. Astrue

United States District Court, D. Delaware

December 12, 2014

MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


GREGORY M. SLEET, District Judge.


Lavette Mathis ("Mathis") applied for Title II and XVI, 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 401-433, disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on June 17, 2009, claiming that she was unable to work due to her disability beginning on January 1, 2006. Her applications were denied on October 30, 2009, and again upon reconsideration on January 11, 2010. Mathis then timely filed a request for an administrative hearing on February 3, 2010. A video hearing took place on October 22, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ'') Judith A. Showalter. ALJ Showalter rendered a written decision on December 3, 2010, denying Mathis' request for benefits. The Appeals Council denied Mathis's request for review on May 30, 2012. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, she filed a complaint with the court on July 9, 2012. (D.I. 1.) The Commissioner of Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") timely answered on August 30, 2012. (D.I. 3.) Mathis moved for summary judgment on December 10, 2012, (D.I. 9), and the Commissioner filed a cross motion for summary judgment on February 11, 2013. (D.I. 12.) Because the court finds that the ALJ's denial of benefits was supported by substantial evidence, the court will deny Mathis's motion and grant summary judgment in favor of the Commissioner.


Mathis suffers from depression, diabetes, heart disease, and schizoaffective disorder. (D.I. 5 at 18-20.) Her depression, schizoaffective disorder, and heart condition constitute a "mild" impairment of her ability to work. ( Id. ) Mathis was consistently employed from 1999 until 2009. At first she performed menial labor and later worked as a teaching assistant. In May 2002, Mathis became a Certified Nursing Assistant. ( Id. at 42.) From 2003 to 2005, Mathis worked for Generations Home Care. In 2005, she began working for the Delaware hospice and the Franciscan Elder Care. ( Id. ) From 2007 to 2008, Mathis worked for Molter Associates. ( Id. ) Then beginning in 2009, Mathis worked for St. Francis Hospital. ( Id. ) At the time of the administrative hearing, Mathis claimed she quit her job due to stress on her heart from lifting patients. (D.I. 5 at 41, 174.) The record, however, indicates that Mathis was fired from her job in May 2009 for stealing patients' credit cards, several weeks before the alleged onset of her disability. ( Id. at 24.)

A. Medical History

Mathis is requesting a closed period of benefits from June 8, 2009, through June 8, 2010. (D.I. 5 at 15.) Although Mathis claims her mental illness emerged in 2005, she remained gainfully employed until May 2009, when, as already noted, she was fired for stealing clients' credit cards. Mathis'closed period ends at the beginning of her incarceration for a failed drug test while on probation for stealing those credit cards. ( Id. at 39.)

On April 20, 2009, Mathis first received care from Dr. David Kalkstein, a psychiatrist, and Sue Getty Evans, a therapist and social worker. ( Id. at 239.) At the first meeting, Dr. Kalkstein diagnosed Mathis with Major Depressive Disorder and assessed her to have a GAF score of 50.[1] ( Id. at 277.) In evaluations on July 8, 2009, and July 22, 2009, Dr. Kalkstein diagnosed Mathis with schizoaffective disorder after Mathis complained of hearing voices in her head, a condition which allegedly first began in 2005. ( Id. at 276.) In addition to auditory hallucinations, Mathis complained of mood swings and panic attacks, although on July 8 she admitted her mood had been improving. ( Id. ) On August 5, 2009, she reported to Dr. Kalkstein that she was feeling better at times and was "taking care of [her] kids and [her] house." ( Id. at 275.)

On September 16, 2009, Mathis informed Dr. Kalkstein that, although her mood was improving, she had begun to experience increased anxiety. ( Id. at 302.) On the same day Mathis met with her general practitioner Dr. Beverly Toporowski; during the meeting Mathis reported to Dr. Toporowski that she was seeing a psychiatrist every week to deal with her psychological issues, that the Risperdal prescribed for her auditory hallucinations was working, and that she was "feeling much better." ( Id. at 353.)

On September 23, 2009, Dr. Christopher King, a state agency psychological expert, reviewed Mathis' file and concluded that she was capable of performing simple tasks and sustaining a basic work routine, despite having moderate limitations in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions, as well as having moderate limitations in her ability to maintain concentration for prolonged periods of time. ( Id. at 280-91). Further, Dr. King concluded that Mathis was only partially credible about her condition, with her actual mental limitations much less severe than her stated limitations. ( Id. ) Dr. King found it dubious that Mathis' acute symptoms coincidentally appeared just after she had been fired from her last job and that she reported new symptoms of auditory hallucinations after beginning a regimen of psychotropic medications. ( Id. ) Dr. King determined that Mathis suffered from mild underlying depressive anxiety, rather than a chronic, debilitating illness. ( Id. ) Dr. King found that other treating sources had overestimated the severity of her illness and that her current complaints were "situational, " a function of her recent criminal behavior. ( Id. )

On September 30, 2009, Dr. Toporowski reviewed Mathis' mental status, noting that she would begin treatment for her depression at Meadow Wood Hospital the next day. ( Id. at 351.) On October 1, 2009, she was admitted into the partial hospitalization program at Meadow Wood, where she remained until October 12, 2009. ( Id. at 306.) Upon admittance, Meadow Wood medical staff conducted a mental status examination that revealed that the Mathis's memory was intact, her general appearance was "neat/well-groomed, " she displayed a depressed and anxious mood, and presented a flat affect, with a GAF score of 45.[2] ( Id. at 308, 313.) Twelve days later, Dr. Mujib O'Beidy discharged Mathis, diagnosing the patient with major depressive disorder, recurrent and severe psychosis, and cannabis dependence. ( Id. at 310.) Dr. O'Beidy assessed Mathis with a GAF score of 65.[3] ( Id. )

On October 13, 2009, the day of Mathis' release from the Meadow Wood facilities, she reported to Dr. Kalkstein that she now only experienced hallucinations for a few seconds at a time and was overall doing better. ( Id. at 302.) On October 17, 2009, Mathis saw Dr. Toporowski, complaining that her psychotropic medications made her feel off-balance, dizzy, and sleepy. ( Id. at 346.) On October 20, 2009, Mathis admitted to Dr. Kalkstein that she was taking more Xanax than she had been prescribed. ( Id. at 302.) Then on October 27, 2009, Mathis reported to Dr. Kalkstein that her auditory hallucinations had improved with her use of Risperdal. ( Id. at 301.) On November 10, 2009, Mathis reported to Dr. Kalkstein that the auditory hallucinations had subsided. ( Id. ) Throughout November and December, Mathis was instructed to restart group therapy after reporting that she continued to experience anxiety, sadness, lack of appetite, and inadequate sleep. ( Id. )

On January 11, 2010, Dr. Carlene Tucker-Okine, another state psychological expert, reviewed Dr. King's evaluation and affirmed his findings that Mathis had exaggerated the extent ofher incapacity. ( Id. at 322-35) Throughout early 2010, leading up to the Mathis' eventual arrest for her use of PCP, she reported a deteriorated mental state. ( Id. at 356.)

On April 13, 2010, Dr. Kalkstein and Ms. Evans determined that Mathis' current GAF score was 33 as part of their Mental Impairment Questionnaire ("MIQ").[4] ( Id. at 239.) The MIQ further stated (incorrectly) that the highest GAF Mathis had presented in the past was 40, and also stated that she had responded poorly to treatment in the past year. ( Id. ) The evaluators concluded that Mathis had been severely impaired for the past year, with "no useful ability" in most mental functioning categories. ( Id. at 240.)

During much of the year Mathis claims she was disabled, she was, at the same time, using illicit drugs. As the ALJ noted: "If I find that you are disabled and that you have a substance disorder (drug, alcohol, or both), I also will decide whether it is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. This means I will decide whether you would be disabled if you were not using drugs or alcohol. If drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of your disability, I will not find you disabled." ( Id. at 113.)

B. Mental Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") Assessments

1. The MIQ of Dr. Kalkstein and Sue Evans.

Dr. Kalkstein and Ms. Evans's MIQ stated that Mathis was severely impaired and was incapable of work. (D.15 at 239-44.) They assessed Mathis with a GAF of 33 during the period for which she was using PCP, while wrongly claiming that her highest GAF in the last twelve months was 40; in reality, Dr. O'Beidy had assessed the Mathis a GAF score of 65 while she resided at Meadow Wood. ( Id. at 239, 310.) The MIQ noted that Mathis had recurrent obsessions and compulsions, such as her history of excessive shopping, and emotional withdrawal or isolation. ( Id. at 240). In addition, the MIQ noted that Mathis was "too impaired by mental illness to minimally take care of herself and [her] kids, [as a result of her] depression and ...

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