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Grier v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Delaware

July 3, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Oliver Grier ("Grier") filed this action on March 12, 2018 against the defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"). Grier seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Commissioner's January 16, 2018 final decision, denying Grier's claim for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 and §§ 1381-1383f. This court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]

         Currently before the court are cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Grier and the Commissioner.[2] (D.I. 12; D.I. 16) Grier asks the court to remand his case for further administrative proceedings. (D.I. 13 at 20) The Commissioner requests the court affirm the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision. (D.I. 17 at 15) For the reasons set forth below, Grier's motion for summary judgment is denied (D.I. 12), and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment is granted (D.I. 16).


         A. Procedural History

         Grier filed a SSI application on September 27, 2013, [3] claiming a disability onset date of August 27, 2013. (D.I. 9-2 at 21; D.I. 9-6 at 2) His claim was initially denied on January 7, 2014, and denied again after reconsideration on August 14, 2014.[4] (D.I. 9-4 at 2-6, 10-14) Grier then filed a request for a hearing, which occurred on September 12, 2016. (D.I. 9-2 at 37-67) Administrative Law Judge Jack Penca issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Grier was not disabled under the Act on October 11, 2016. (Id. at 21-31) The Appeals Council subsequently denied Grier's request for review on January 16, 2018, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 2-5)

         On March 12, 2018, Grier brought a civil action in this court challenging the ALJ's decision. (D.I. 1) On September 4, 2018, Grier filed a motion for summary judgment, and on November 15, 2018, the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. (D.I. 12; D.I. 16)

         B. Medical History

         Grier was born on September 3, 1989, and was 23 years old on his alleged disability onset date. (D.I. 9-2 at 30) Grier attended school through the eleventh grade, but did not graduate from high school. (Id. at 49) Grier has no past relevant work history. (Id. at 30) The ALJ concluded that Grier has the following severe impairment: schizophrenia. (Id. at 23)

         On November 18, 2013, Grier saw Dr. Kimberly Watson ("Dr. Watson"), [5] who opined that Grier had bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, and paranoid personality features. (D.I. 9-9 at 53-56) Grier stated that he "get[s] paranoid and uncomfortable" around people. (Id. at 53) Grier registered a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 57.[6] (Id. at 56) On December 2, 2013, Dr. Watson conducted a Psychological Functional Capacities Evaluation and found that Grier had moderate limitations[7] in his abilities to relate to other people and cope with the pressure of ordinary work. (Id. at 58-59)

         On March 16 and 17, 2014, Grier was hospitalized due to his aggressive behavior and acute psychosis. (D.I. 9-10 at 2, 41) Grier failed to regularly take his medication and he had become increasingly paranoid and delusional, believing that the government had put a computer chip in his head. (Id. at 41) Following his hospitalization, Grier was admitted to Delaware Psychiatric Center on March 17, 2014. (Id.; D.I. 9-11 at 4) On March 19, 2014, Delaware Psychiatric Center conducted a psychological assessment of Grier. (D.I. 9-10 at 41-43) Grier was diagnosed with schizophrenia and his "psychotic symptoms suggest[ed] an underlying chemical imbalance that require[d] maintenance with pharmacological interventions." (Id. at 42-43) Grier had a GAF score of 40. (Id. at 44)

         Grier was discharged from the Delaware Psychiatric Center on April 22, 2014. (D.I. 9-11 at 4) His discharge notes show his progressive improvement while on his medications and the significant improvement of his paranoia symptoms. (Id. at 6) Grier registered a GAF score of 55. (Id.) Grier denied suicidal ideations, homicidal ideations, and auditory hallucinations. (Id.) On April 28, 2014, Dr. Ralph Kaufman ("Dr. Kaufman")[8] stated that Grier had problems with hallucination, delusion, and paranoia, but seemed calm, cooperative, and conversational. (D.I. 9-12 at 32-34) Grier experienced auditory hallucinations through May 2014. (D.I. 9-14 at 8)

         On June 30, 2014, Grier visited Dr. Kaufman, who noted that Grier reported some panic attacks, and experienced boredom and delusions. (Id. at 10) On July 2, 2014, Grier's case manager at Resources for Human Development ("RHD")[9] completed a Disability Determination Services Report, summarizing that Grier suffered from poor concentration and memory, auditory hallucinations, lack of motivation and energy, mood swings, and paranoia. (D.I. 9-12 at 6-8) Grier's case manager stated that "with continued care and support from RHD, Grier will be able to change, recover, and grow," but Grier's "condition has cause[d] him to not be capable of working at this time." (Id. at 9) Grier visited Dr. Kaufman on July 21, 2014 and stated that he felt better but still heard voices. (D.I. 9-14 at 12) On July 28, 2014, Dr. Kaufman noted that Grier had a positive response to medication and felt more alert and confident. (Id. at 13)

         On October 7, 2014, Grier was referred to the Rockford Center from Wilmington Hospital for psychiatric stabilization after he experienced auditory hallucinations, severe paranoia, agitation, and a violent disposition. (D.I. 9-18 at 19) Grier registered a GAF score of 25 when he was admitted. (Id. at 20) On October 17, 2014, Grier was discharged and denied suicidal and homicidal ideation. (D.I. 9-13 at 18) Furthermore, he exhibited fair judgment with adequate impulse control, and registered a GAF score of 50. (D.I. 9-18 at 21)

         During a follow up appointment with Dr. Kaufman on October 20, 2014, Grier reportedly felt better after being hospitalized and was lifting weights and doing chores. (D.I. 9-14 at 14) He was not exhibiting delusional symptoms and had no racing thoughts, but was slightly anxious. (Id.) Grier stated that he found large groups of people intimidating. (Id.) On November 10, 2014, Grier told Dr. Kaufman that he felt that his schizophrenic symptoms were decreasing and that he had been enjoying helping his grandfather work in his garden. (Id. at 19)

         On January 6, 2015, RyeNeysa Gregory, RN ("Ms. Gregory") noted that Grier's mental status had not declined and that his medications were reportedly working. (Id. at 46) On February 1, 2015, Dr. Kaufman observed that Grier had a GAF score of 45 and had occasional problems with hallucinations, delusions, and isolation, but was calmer and less paranoid. (D.I. 9-15 at 11-12) The following day, Dr. Kaufman completed a medical certification form for Grier, wherein he opined that Grier's mental impairments would last more than twelve months. (D.I. 9-13 at 16) Dr. Kaufman also concluded that Grier was unable to work at his usual occupation and should not be permitted to perform any work on a full time basis. (Id.) During a follow up appointment with Dr. Kaufman on April 6, 2015, Grier stated that he had been playing basketball and helping around the house. (D.I. 9-15 at 22) Dr. Kaufman observed that Grier experienced occasional delusional thinking "that does not appear to impact him so much." (Id.)

         On June 2, 2015, Grier visited Dr. Kaufman and indicated that he had recently experienced two anxiety attacks and was under the impression that his medication may have caused them. (Id. at 30) Dr. Kaufman encouraged Grier to become more social despite his anxiety. (Id.) During a follow up appointment on June 15, 2015, Grier reported having a few panic attacks and anxiety, but followed Dr. Kaufman's advice on socializing and recently went fishing. (Id. at 31) From August through November 2015, Grier reported occasional anxiety, but denied hallucinations and participated in more social activities. (Id. at 37, 42) On January 11, 2016, Grier stated that he had been enjoying playing video games with friends and Dr. Kaufman noted Grier was more outgoing despite his occasional anxiety. (D.I. 9-16 at 15) On February 8, 2016, Grier stated that he sometimes felt uncomfortable when he goes outside. (Id. at 28-29)

         On March 3, 2016, Grier started seeking Dr. Lavinia Park ("Dr. Park")[10] after being transferred from Dr. Kaufman. (Id. at 38-39) Grier reported that he experienced panic attacks and anxiety. (Id. at 38) Furthermore, Dr. Park noted that Grier's medication regimen was helpful and that Grier was attempting to use coping skills to combat his anxiety. (Id.) On March 7, 2016, Dr. Park prepared a medical certification form for Grier, wherein she opined that Grier's mental impairments would last more than twelve months and that Grier needed some supervision. (D.I. 9-13 at 38) Furthermore, Dr. Park concluded that Grier was unable to work at his usual occupation and should not be permitted to perform any work on a full time basis. (Id.) On April 15, 2016, Grier stated that he was going out more every day and was continuing to exercise and fish with his family. (D.I. 9-17 at 11-12) On April 20, 2016, Dr. Park noted that Grier had been challenging himself to be more social by engaging in activities outside of his home despite his anxiety and discomfort around other people. (Id. at 13-14) In a series of follow up appointments from April to June 2016, Grier reported that he was managing his anxiety well. (Id. at 15-16, 19-20, 23-26, 28-31)

         On June 16, 2016, Grier stated that he enjoyed going out much more than he had previously, but still experienced anxiety. (D.I. 9-21 at 3-4) Furthermore, Grier reported that he felt like he had been making progress and that his anxiety had improved. (Id.) During a psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Park on July 8, 2016, Grier reported that he had been swimming and doing yard work. (Id. at 5) Grier stated he was "not so scared about the community" and recognized the importance of challenging himself socially. (Id. at 5) Grier explained that he was afraid of people hearing his thoughts, but felt like he was making progress. (Id.) He stated that he was attempting to walk around the neighborhood by himself. (Id.)

         On August 10, 2016, Dr. Park noted that Grier experienced anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks, but was managing these symptoms well with medication. (Id. at 7-8) Grier was staying active and was happy with his weight loss. (Id.) Dr. Park also completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire which noted that Grier's abilities were "poor" in a number of areas, including: working in coordination with or in proximity to others without being unduly distracted, dealing with stress of semiskilled and skilled work, interacting appropriately with the general public, and travelling in an unfamiliar place. (Id. at 10-16) Dr. Park opined that Grier had marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning and concentration, persistence, and pace. (Id. at 15) Dr. Park indicated that despite compliance with medication, Grier continued to experience high levels of anxiety and panic attacks. (Id. at 11) Furthermore, Dr. Park asserted that Grier's anxiety related disorder results in the "complete inability to function independently outside the area of [his] home." (Id. at 15)

         C. Hearing Before ALJ Penca

         1. Grier's Testimony

         Grier testified that he currently lives at his mother's house with his mother, brother, sister, nephew, and uncle. (D.I. 9-2 at 43) Grier testified that he currently sees Dr. Park once per month for his schizophrenia, paranoia, anxiety, and depression. (Id. at 43-45) Grier stated that he saw Dr. Kaufman for approximately three and a half years before transferring to Dr. Park's care. (Id. at 44) He testified that he takes a large number of medications, but feels that they are becoming less effective. (Id. at 45, 55) Grier testified that he was previously hospitalized after he punched a hole in his mother's wall and stopped taking his medication because of the voices in his head. (Id. at 47) Grier stated that he still hears voices and that they sometimes cause him to become upset and make him "want to go on a rage like outburst." (Id. at 47-48)

         Grier stated that he starts his days by taking his medication, pacing around his mother's house, and opening up the windows to check outside. (Id. at 51) If the weather is nice, Grier spends about five to ten minutes outside before coming back inside the house. (Id.) He testified that he leaves the house approximately two times per week: once when he goes to the store with his mother and once when he visits his grandparents' house. (Id. at 48) When he goes to the store with his mother, he does not drive and goes inside the store for approximately five minutes before returning to the car to wait for his mother to finish shopping. (Id. at 48, 54) He occasionally goes to various stores, including 7-Eleven, Getty, the Dollar Store, and Shop Rite. (Id. at 56) Grier sometimes spends time with his cousin, but only if his cousin comes over to his house. (Id.) Grier also testified that he does not believe he is capable of working, because he does not feel comfortable with the community and is scared of other people. (Id. at 48, 54)

         When asked if he had experienced any change in his condition, Grier testified that he believed his condition was worsening. (Id. at 53) Grier testified that he does not want to continue "do[ing] nothing," but wants to "enjoy life and go out and do things." (Id.) Grier does not have any plan with his doctor to get him out of the house more or become employed. (Id.)

         2. Grier's Mother's Testimony

         Michele Rae Grier ("Ms. Grier"), Grier's mother, testified that Grier has no hobbies and no friends. (Id. at 58) She stated that Grier continually paces around the house and when people come over, he confines himself to his room. (Id.) He rarely leaves the house, and when he does, he is usually only able to stay outside for five minutes at a time. (Id.) She testified that Grier occasionally visits his grandparents' house and helps them with yard work. (Id. at 63) Ms. Grier stated that Grier recently spent time with his brother and cousins watching a football game, but intermittently left to spend time alone in the kitchen or in his room. (Id.)

         Ms. Grier testified that Grier is currently medication compliant and occasionally does household chores and cooks for himself. (Id. at 59, 61-62) However, Grier needs to be reminded to take baths and cut his hair. (Id. at 61) She also testified that she does not believe Grier would be medication compliant if he had to take care of himself. (Id. at 61-62) Grier can remember instructions, but forgets things frequently. (Id. at 62) She does not think that Grier can work because of his paranoia, random emotional breakdowns, and inability to stay focused. (Id. at 59-60, 62)

         3. Vocational expert ...

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