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Chandler v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

March 29, 2019

LAURIE TERRYL CHANDLER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING THE DECISION OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION COMMISSIONER AND REMANDING THE CASE FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

          Helen Gillmor Judge

         This case involves the appeal of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's denial of Disability Insurance Benefits and partial denial of Supplemental Security Income Benefits to Plaintiff Laurie Terryl Chandler.

         On January 7, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff also filed an application for Supplemental Security Income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

         Plaintiff filed for benefits stating she has been disabled since July 15, 2013, because of two separate instances of breast cancer, bilateral total mastectomies, tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.

         Plaintiff made sufficient payments to the Social Security Administration through her former employment as a massage therapist in order to be insured through March 31, 2016.

         The Social Security Administration initially denied her applications for both Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income.

         Following an administrative hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision that was partially favorable to Plaintiff.

         First, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff was found to be ineligible for Disability Insurance because she was not disabled before the date she was last insured. The ALJ specifically held that Plaintiff was not disabled for a continuous period of at least 12 months following her onset disability date of July 15, 2013 through March 31, 2016, the date Plaintiff was last insured.

         Second, the ALJ partially granted Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled for a continuous period of at least 12 months from her alleged onset disability date of July 15, 2013 through August 3, 2016.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was first disabled as of August 3, 2016, the date when Plaintiff's age category changed to an individual of advanced age. The ALJ found that as of August 3, 2016, when Plaintiff became a person of advanced age, she was entitled to Supplemental Security Income.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision and Plaintiff appealed to this Court.

         The Court REVERSES the decision of the Social Security Administration Commissioner and REMANDS the case for further evaluation.

         Remand is required on an open record to allow the Administrative Law Judge to properly consider the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians and any other evidence necessary to evaluate the totality of Plaintiff's circumstances and various infirmities and symptoms.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 7, 2014, Plaintiff Laurie Terryl Chandler filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income with the Social Security Administration. (Administrative Record (“AR”) at pp. 174-85, ECF No. 17).

         On June 2, 2014, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's initial applications. (AR at pp. 77-92).

         On November 25, 2014, the Administration denied her request for reconsideration. (AR at pp. 97-116).

         Following the denial of Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, she sought a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR at p. 130).

         On November 30, 2016, an ALJ conducted a hearing on Plaintiff's applications. (AR at pp. 29-76).

         On February 1, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits and partially granting Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income. (AR at pp. 12-22).

         Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council for the Social Security Administration. The Appeals Council denied further review of Plaintiff's application on May 23, 2018, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final administrative decision by the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR at pp. 1-3).

         On July 20, 2018, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision to deny her application for Disability Benefits and partially grant her application for Supplemental Security Income in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Complaint for Review of Social Security Disability Insurance Determination, ECF No. 1).

         On October 1, 2018, the Magistrate Judge issued a briefing schedule. (ECF No. 18).

         On November 27, 2018, Plaintiff filed PLAINTIFF'S BRIEF IN SUPPORT OF REMAND. (ECF No. 19).

         On December 6, 2018, Plaintiff filed her UNOPPOSED MOTION FOR LEAVE TO APPEAR WITHOUT LOCAL COUNSEL AND TO ATTEND ORAL ARGUMENT VIA TELEPHONE. (ECF No. 20).

         On December 20, 2018, the Court granted Plaintiff's Motion to Appear Without Local Counsel and To Attend Oral Argument via Telephone. (ECF No. 21).

         On January 7, 2019, the Defendant filed DEFENDANT'S ANSWERING BRIEF. (ECF No. 22).

         Plaintiff declined to file an Optional Reply Brief.

         On February 25, 2019, the Court held a hearing on Plaintiff's appeal of the decision of the Social Security Administration Commissioner.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff's Work History

         Plaintiff is a 57 year-old female. (Administrative Record (“AR”) at p. 20, ECF No. 17).

         From 1998 to 2001, Plaintiff worked as a residential aide at a detox center. (Id. at pp. 41-45, 190).

         From 2001 to 2003, Plaintiff trained to be a licensed massage therapist. (Id. at pp. 41, 192).

         From 2003 to 2013, Plaintiff was self-employed as a massage therapist. (Id. at p. 204). Plaintiff made sufficient payments to the Social Security Administration to be insured until March 31, 2016.

         On July 15, 2013, Plaintiff alleges she became disabled and unable to work. (Id. at p. 40).

         From September 2013 to 2016, Plaintiff worked ten hours a week as a chore provider for an elderly woman. (Id. at p. 38).

         Plaintiff's Medical History

         Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Left Elbow Tendinitis

         In August 2012, Plaintiff was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in her right hand. Plaintiff had previously suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome but had surgery to alleviate the symptoms. The condition returned and Plaintiff reported that she was experiencing numbness, tightening, and tingling in her right hand and thumb.

         In September 2012, Plaintiff again had surgery on her right hand to alleviate her carpal tunnel syndrome. (Id. at p. 255).

         Plaintiff also suffered pain in her left elbow. (Id.) Plaintiff had injections in her left elbow to help alleviate the symptoms. Plaintiff was prescribed a splint to assist her. (Id. at 245).

         On February 2, 2015, Plaintiff underwent surgery on her left hand for carpal tunnel syndrome. (Id. at p. 460).

         Breast Cancer, Depression, And Anxiety

         On May 17, 2013, a tumor was discovered in Plaintiff's left breast during a routine mammogram screening. (Id. at p. 260). A biopsy revealed it was a grade 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. (Id.)

         Plaintiff experienced anxiety and depression following her diagnosis. (Id. at p. 341). She also had chronic headaches, numbness, tingling, memory changes, and hearing issues. (Id. at pp. 343, 350).

         On July 24, 2013, Plaintiff had a partial mastectomy of her left breast. (Id. at pp. 338, 408-19).

         Following her breast surgery, Plaintiff underwent radiation treatment from August 27, 2013 until October 11, 2013. (Id. at p. 328). Plaintiff underwent approximately 32 rounds of radiation treatment on her left breast. (Id.)

         Plaintiff continued to experience anxiety and depression following her surgery and during her radiation treatment. (Id. at pp. 295, 320, 323). A mental illness assessment in September 2013 revealed that Plaintiff suffers from episodic anxiety attacks that may last through an entire day. (Id. at pp. 446-49).

         On January 2, 2014, Plaintiff was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed an antidepressant along with her post-cancer treatment prescription for Tamoxifen. (Id. at pp. 293-95). Plaintiff continued to be on antidepressant medication with monthly appointments recommended for the next 4-9 months. (Id. at p. 292). Plaintiff also continued to have post-surgery infirmities for a number of months including rashes, irritation and inflamation around the surgery and radiation sites, and pain. (Id. at pp. 287-92).

         On June 12, 2015, a mammogram revealed that cancer reoccurred in Plaintiff's left breast. (Id. at pp. 541, 582). On August 5, 2015, Plaintiff underwent bilateral total mastectomies on her breasts. (Id. at pp. 553-60).

         The Social Security Administration's Review of Plaintiff's January 7, 2014 Applications For Disability and Supplemental Security Income Benefits

          Plaintiff's January 7, 2014 application for Social Security Administration Disability Insurance Benefits and her January 7, 2014 application for Supplemental Security Income were initially denied on June 2, 2014. (AR at pp. 77-92, ECF No. 17).

         Following the initial denials, Plaintiff moved for reconsideration. On November 25, 2014, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's motion for reconsideration. (Id. at pp. 107-16). On July 22, 2014, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at p. 130).

         Plaintiff's cancer reoccurred during her application process. On August 5, 2015, Plaintiff underwent bilateral total mastectomies on her breasts. Plaintiff supplemented the record with additional medical records before she had her hearing before the ALJ.

         On November 30, 2016, a hearing on Plaintiff's applications for Social Security Administration Disability Benefits and Supplemental Security Income was held before an ALJ. (Id. at pp. 29-76).

         On February 1, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits. (Id. at pp. 12-22). The ALJ partially granted Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income. (Id.)

         Plaintiff asserted that she was disabled for a continuous period following July 15, 2013, approximately at the time of her first breast cancer surgery. Plaintiff claimed that she was disabled for a period of not less than twelve months due to her various disabilities including carpal tunnel syndrome, sprains/strains and other arthropathies[1], and her twice having breast cancer, surgeries, radiation, and other treatment including physical therapy. (Id. at pp. 14, 203-12).

         Plaintiff's application indicated that she suffered from chronic pain, migraines, anxiety, panic attacks, and fatigue. (Id. at p. 212).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926. (AR at p. 15, ECF No. 17).

         The ALJ agreed with Plaintiff that she was not capable of performing her past relevant work as a Massage Therapist. (Id. at p. 20).

         The Administrative Law Judge determined that Plaintiff was classified as “advanced age” as of August 3, 2016[2] based on the Social Security ...


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