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Sutherland v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Delaware

September 22, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Gary L. Smith, Esq., Newark, DE. Attorney for Plaintiff.

          David C. Weiss, United States Attorney, and Heather Benderson, Special Assistant United States Attorney, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Philadelphia, PA.

          Of Counsel: Nora Koch, Regional Chief Counsel, and Katie M. Gaughan, Assistant Regional Counsel, of the Social Security Administration, Philadelphia, PA. Attorneys for Defendant.




         Plaintiff Keisha M. Sutherland ("Sutherland" or "Plaintiff) appeals the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner" or "Defendant"), denying her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"), under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, respectively. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (D.I. 12, 16) Plaintiff Sutherland requests the Court find that the ALJ must accept the unrebutted opinion of Sutherland's treating doctor, Dr. Habibah Mosley, and find that Sutherland has been disabled from her alleged onset date of April 6, 2007. (D.I. 13 at 11) The Commissioner requests that the Court affirm the decision denying Sutherland's claim for DIB and SSI. (D.I. 17 at 14)

         For the reasons stated below, the Court will deny Plaintiffs motion for summary judgment and grant Defendant's motion.


         A. Procedural History

         Sutherland filed her initial application for DIB and SSI on July 23, 2007, alleging an onset date of April 6, 2007. (D.I. 8 ("Tr.") at 503-04) After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a decision on April 3, 2009, finding Sutherland not disabled. (Id. at 503) On appeal, the Appeals Council affirmed the 2009 decision, leading Sutherland to appeal to this Court. (Id.)

         On September 8, 2010, while Sutherland's 2009 appeal was pending with this Court, Sutherland filed an amended application for DIB and SSI, amending her alleged onset date to April 9, 2009. (Id. at 503-04) Sutherland's amended claims were denied, and a hearing was held on March 7, 2012, before a different ALJ. (Id. at 503) This ALJ issued a decision finding Sutherland was not disabled, and Sutherland appealed to the Appeals Council. (Id.)

         On July 13, 2012, this Court granted Sutherland's motion for summary judgment and remanded the 2009 case. (Id.; see also Simmonds v. Astrue, 872 F.Supp.2d 351 (D. Del. 2012)) On October 25, 2013, the Appeals Council vacated the 2009 decision and remanded it for further consideration of a treating source opinion, directed that Sutherland's 2012 appeal be associated with the 2009 appeal, and that a new decision be issued on the associated claims. (Tr. at 503)

         A remand hearing was held on July 24, 2014, ; at which both Sutherland and impartial vocational expert Mitchell A. Schmidt testified. (Id.) On August 25, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Sutherland was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from Sutherland's initial alleged onset date of April 2007 through the date of her decision. (Id. at 503- 19) The Appeals Council denied Sutherland's request for review, and Sutherland appealed to this Court. (Id. at 309-13; D.I. 17 at 2)

         B. Factual History

         1. Background

         At the time she applied for DIB and SSI, Sutherland was a 31 year-old divorced mother of two young daughters. (Tr. at 26; D.I. 13 at 2) Sutherland has a high school education, completed three-and-a-half years of college, is a former Army Reservist, and has been trained as a Licensed Practical Nurse. (Tr. at 26-28) She last worked in April 2007 as a lead/charge nurse in a nursing home. (Id. at 29-30) While Sutherland testified that! she stopped working in April 2007 because she "started getting confused" (id. at 29), the record also shows that Sutherland told Frederick Kurz, Ph.D., the consultative psychological examiner, that she stopped working because she was not getting enough hours at work and was denied a vacation. (D.I. 17 at 3; see also Tr. At 224).

         At the 2009 and 2012 ALJ hearings, Sutherland testified that she was able to assist her daughters with their homework and personal hygiene, prepare their meals, walk them to the park, and drive them to school. (Tr. at 149, 361, 364-66) Sutherland was also able to wash dishes, do laundry, dust, sweep, clean, and shop for groceries, as well as attend religious services on Sundays and visit with friends and family. (Id. at 152-54, 364-66) In addition, at the 2012 and 2014 ALJ hearings, Sutherland testified that she helped care for her housebound grandfather, with whom she lived, that she was able to drive a car, and that she had taken multiple trips to Jamaica during the alleged period of disability. (Id. at 349, 367, 400-02)

         2. Medical History

         Sutherland's relevant medical history began on April 6, 2007, the date Sutherland testified she first "started getting confused" and "inexplicably stopped going to work." (Tr. at 29; D.I. 13 at 2) Sutherland subsequently had a ten-day hospital stay in July 2007 due to an episode of confusion, after police officers found her partially clothed and unable to explain the whereabouts of her children. (Tr. at 202-22, 269-76; D.I. 17 at 4; D.I. 13 at 3) Sutherland was admitted for acute exacerbation of psychotic illness and medication noncompliance with a global assessment of functioning (GAF) score of 30, indicating behavior that is considerably influenced by delusions or hallucinations, serious impairment in communication or judgment, or inability to function in almost all areas. (Tr. at 203; D.I. 13 at 3) She was later discharged in stable condition with a diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder (depressed). (Tr. at 202-03)

         On August 8, 2007, Sutherland began treatment with psychiatrist Habibah E. Mosley, D.O. (Id. at 284-86) During her initial visit, Dr. Mosley reported that Sutherland appeared kempt, pleasant, cooperative, alert, and oriented to person, place, and time. (Id. at 285) Dr. Mosley also reported that Sutherland had no hallucinations or suicidal ideations, and assessed a GAF score of 50, indicating serious symptoms or serious impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning. (Id. at 285-86) Sutherland was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, and prescribed medication and continuing therapy treatment. (Id. at 286)

         On October 22, 2007, Sutherland underwent a neurological evaluation with Michael J. Carunchio, Jr., M.D. (Id. at 249-52) Dr. Carunchio documented that Sutherland appeared alert and oriented to person, place, and time, and that her recent/remote memory, attention, language, and fund of knowledge were all normal. (Id. at 251) Dr. Carunchio noted that he was uncertain as to the etiology of Sutherland's "extended periods of behavior-confusion, " and that he was "unable to glean specifics to suggest an epileptogenic component." (Id.)

         While at the hospital, on November 14, 2007, Sutherland had an MRI scan of her brain, which showed no abnormality. (Id. at 246, 248) After being discharged from the hospital, and during a follow-up visit on November 29, 2007, Dr. Carunchio noted again that Sutherland was alert, had normal speech and comprehension, and that he saw no indication of a neurologic disturbance. (Id. at 246)

         Sutherland continued seeing Dr. Mosley on a monthly basis, and on November 7, 2008, Dr. Mosley noted that Sutherland had stopped taking her medication, had not slept for two days, had a decreased appetite, and was disoriented. (Id. at 298, 301) Sutherland was subsequently admitted to the hospital again, for a stay that again lasted ten days. (Id. at 287-96) Upon psychiatric examination, Sutherland was alert, oriented to place and person, and had average intellectual functioning, but was assessed to have a GAF score of 15, indicating some danger of hurting oneself or others or gross impairment in communication. (Id. at 296)

         On December 1, 2008, Dr. Mosley completed a mental impairment questionnaire, noting that Sutherland had responded well to treatment and indicating that Sutherland was limited-but-satisfactory in her ability to remember work-like procedures, maintain regular attendance and be punctual, and ask simple questions or request assistance. (Id. at 254-56) Dr. Mosley also indicated that Sutherland was seriously limited, but not precluded, in her ability to understand and carry out simple instructions, maintain attention for two-hour segments, sustain an ordinary routine, work with others, make simple work-related decisions, complete a normal workday and workweek, perform at a consistent pace, respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting, and be aware of normal hazards. (Id. at 256) Dr. Mosley found Sutherland markedly limited and unable to meet competitive standards in accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, getting along with co-workers or peers without unduly distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, and dealing with normal work stress. (Id.) Dr. Mosley noted that Sutherland was moderately limited in performing the activities of daily living, would have moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning and in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and had three, two-week episodes of decompensation within a twelve-month period. (Id. at 257) Dr. Mosley ultimately diagnosed ...

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