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Hundley v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

January 12, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          BRISTOW MARCHANT, Magistrate Judge.

         The Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner wherein he was denied disability benefits. This case was referred to the undersigned for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a)(D.S.C.).

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI")[1] on September 21, 2010 (protective filing dates), alleging disability beginning January 1, 1982, [2] due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, anxiety, arthritis in his ankles, back problems, and wrist problems. (See R.pp. 20, 129, 137, 187). Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on January 9, 2013 (R.pp. 48-65). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision issued February 22, 2013. (R.pp. 20-42). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the determination of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 1-7).

         Plaintiff then filed this action in United States District Court. Plaintiff asserts that there is not substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, and that the decision should be reversed and remanded for further consideration, or for an outright award of benefits. The Commissioner contends that the decision to deny benefits is supported by substantial evidence, and that Plaintiff was properly found not to be disabled.

         Scope of review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court's scope of review is limited to (1) whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ultimate conclusions reached by the Commissioner are legally correct under controlling law. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Richardson v. Califano, 574 F.2d 802, 803 (4th Cir. 1978); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982-983 (4th Cir. 1980). If the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, it is the court's duty to affirm the decision. Substantial evidence has been defined as:

evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is "substantial evidence." [emphasis added].

Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966)); see also, Hepp v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 798, 806 (8th cir. 2008)[Noting that the substantial evidence standard is "less demanding than the preponderance of the evidence standard"].

         The Court lacks the authority to substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "[T]he language of [405(g)] precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court uphold the [Commissioner's] decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence.'" Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).

         Synopsis of Medical History/Background Information

         Plaintiff has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, probable PTSD, and polysubstance abuse. (R.p. 3273, 3276, 3282). In addition to Plaintiff having a history of alcohol abuse, the medical record also contains notations of cocaine, amphetamine, marijuana, heroin, opiate, and benzodiazepine abuse. (See R.pp. 412, 2927, 3917, 3996).

         Since Plaintiff served in the United States Navy from December 1978 to August 1979 (R.p. 671), he has obtained much of his medical care from the Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC). In February 2011, Dr. Lydiard, a psychiatrist with the VAMC in Charleston, wrote that Plaintiff had recently been discharged from hospitalizations in December 2010 and February 2011 with diagnoses of bipolar I disorder, severe social anxiety disorder, PTSD, and severe episodic alcohol abuse. Plaintiff reported that the pattern for his periodic drinking was generally an onset of mania, often preceded by worsened social anxiety symptoms of binge alcohol abuse over two to seven days, stopping his medications such as antabuse, and that he "comes in" when he is out of money or sick from drinking. (R.p 1347). In June 2012, Dr. Lydiard noted that Plaintiff had been hospitalized thirty times since 2001 for suicidal ideation in association with drug and/or alcohol abuse. (R.p. 3273). He opined that Plaintiff's "mania and social anxiety both fuel [his] substance abuse; social anxiety promotes urge to use alcohol and interferes with [Plaintiff's] ability to participate in 12-step programs with return to alcohol use" and "PTSD-related hostility is provoked when [Plaintiff] is put [in a] pressure situation socially." (R.pp. 3263, 3273).

         From May 8 through 22, 2012, Plaintiff was hospitalized in the mental health ward of the VAMC by order of Dr. Christopher Pelic as a result of suicidal ideation (R.pp. 2920-2927). After his release, Plaintiff entered the Second Chance Recovery Home, a VA assisted living facility that required attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. (R.pp. 3273-3282). Dr. Lydiard also prescribed monthly injections of Vivitrol (Naltrexone) to help curb Plaintiff's cravings for alcohol, and Plaintiff reported benefits from these injections. (R.pp. 3210, 3260, 3264, 3266). By August 2012, it was noted that Plaintiff was in a VA work assistance program and was planning to attend technical college. (R.p. 3210).

         On January 13, 2013, Dr. Lydiard completed a questionnaire from Plaintiff's attorney in which he noted that Plaintiff had been his patient since April 2009 for treatment of bipolar disorder, social anxiety, and alcohol abuse, and that Plaintiff's condition had existed since June 2000. Dr. Lydiard opined that Plaintiff's disturbance of mood, accompanied by full or partial manic or depressive syndrome, resulted in marked restrictions of activities of daily living and in maintaining social functioning; deficiencies of concentration persistence or pace; and repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration; and that Plaintiff's chronic affective disorder resulted in repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration and a current history of one or more years inability to function outside a highly supportive living arrangement with an indication of continued need for such an arrangement. He further opined that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder, PTSD, and severe social anxiety collectively increased Plaintiff's risk for alcohol abuse; the endpoint for worsening of these conditions was return to alcohol ...

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