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Hopkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

March 1, 2018

VIRGINIA HOPKINS, on behalf of George Garcia, deceased, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         The Court now considers the merits of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Doc. 15; Doc. 19. For the reasons detailed below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED, and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff, on behalf of her deceased brother, seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner denying the decedent's claim for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). The decedent, George Garcia (“Garcia”), originally filed for benefits in November 2011, claiming that he became disabled in April 2011. Doc. 8-6 at 4. Garcia's application (the “First Application”) was denied at all administrative levels, and he appealed to this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 8-5 at 6, 12; Doc. 8-3 at 2-7; Doc. 8-3 at 18-30.

         While his appeal was pending in this Court, Garcia filed another application for disability benefits in July 2013 (the “Second Application”). Doc. 8-26 at 17. The Second Application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels, Doc. 8-24 at 90 & Doc. 8-25 at 2-3, and a different administrative law judge (“ALJ”) convened a hearing with respect to the Second Application in March 2014. Doc. 8-22 at 42-61. Shortly after that hearing, this Court remanded the case concerning the First Application for further review, after which, the ALJ consolidated the First and Second Applications. Doc. 8-22 at 64-66; Doc. 8-23 at 22-31. Following an administrative hearing, after which Garcia passed away, the ALJ determined that Garcia was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Doc. 8-22 at 15, 35. This appeal followed.

         B. Factual Background

         Garcia was born in April 1960 and was 51 years old at the alleged onset of his disability. Doc. 8-6 at 4. He had a high school education, went to college for a year, and his past relevant work included employment as a cashier/checker and counter clerk. Doc. 8-22 at 71, 84. In terms of his medical history, Garcia went to the hospital in Fall 2011 to establish care for a history of HIV. Doc. 8-10 at 22. In addition to HIV, he was diagnosed with hepatitis C, diarrhea, proteinuria, syphilis, hypertension, gout, heel pain, and epistaxis (nosebleeds). Doc. 8-10 at 11-12; Doc. 8-10 at 26-27; Doc. 8-18 at 71, 75; Doc. 9-6 at 31, 34; Doc. 9-6 at 81, 83; Doc. 9-23 at 18-19. During some medical visits, Garcia exhibited depression and “seem[ed] not to care about anything, ” but he was not receiving mental health treatment. Doc. 8-19 at 18; Doc. 8-19 at 81; see alsoDoc. 8-16 at 39; Doc. 9-6 at 40; Doc. 9-6 at 80; Doc. 9-10 at 4; Doc. 9-11 at 31.

         In December 2013, Dr. George Mount, Ph.D. performed a consultative examination of Garcia.[1] Doc. 9-2 at 2. Testing indicated that Garcia had “a tendency to magnify illness” and endorse feelings of extreme vulnerability, suggesting the presence of a severe mental disorder. Doc. 9-2 at 4. Dr. Mount indicated that Garcia appeared to suffer from (1) dependent personality disorder with depressive personality traits, schizoid personality features, and avoidant personality features; (2) major depression, recurrent, severe, without psychotic features; (3) adjustment disorder with anxiety; and (4) posttraumatic stress disorder. Doc. 9-2 at 4, 9.

         A different test administered by Dr. Mount indicated that Garcia was “experiencing substantially more depressive symptoms than the typical medical patient, ” and it was noted that the “ordinary responsibilities and give-and-take of everyday life may be more than [Garcia] can bear.” Doc. 9-2 at 14. Dr. Mount concluded that Garcia could not likely tolerate having his work judged and evaluated by a supervisor. Doc. 9-2 at 19. Dr. Mount also predicted that Garcia could not sustain a normal workday or workweek without significant interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. Doc. 9-2 at 19. Additionally, Dr. Mount reported that Garcia was markedly limited in (1) maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods; (2) performing activities within a regular schedule, maintaining regular attendance, and being punctual; (3) interacting with coworkers without exhibiting behavioral extremes; (4) accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and (5) sustaining an ordinary routine without special supervision. Doc. 9-2 at 20-21.

         C. The ALJ's Findings

         In March 2016, the ALJ determined that Garcia, had had the severe impairments of HIV, chronic kidney disease, anemia, tinnitus, hypertension, depressive disorder, adjustment disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, dependent personality disorder, and hepatitis. Doc. 8-22 at 17-18.

         The ALJ noted that while Garcia had reported feeling depressed, there was no evidence in the record suggesting that he had pursued medical treatment, and the record did not support the marked limitations that Dr. Mount found or reveal that Garcia's depression or anxiety had imposed work-related limitations for 12 consecutive months. Doc. 8-22 at 22.

         In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ noted that Garcia took care of his pets, picked up his clothes, made his bed, cleaned the kitchen, washed dishes, and did not need a reminder for medications or grooming. Doc. 8-22 at 24. The ALJ acknowledged that Garcia's ability “to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods” was at issue, but noted that “no clinician has directly addressed the frequency or duration” of any such interruptions.[2] Doc. 8-22 at 26; see alsoDoc. 8-22 at 26 (ALJ noting that “a work evaluation is the vehicle by which the claimant's adverse responses to demands of work and any GAF predictions are put to the test. But . . . no work evaluation has been performed. Thus, the potential triggers for decompensation in the workplace remain unclear.”); Doc. 8-22 at 35 (ALJ stating that “[Garcia] was not screened-in for a full vocational assessment and thus the capacity to actually perform ...

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