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Fazen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

February 27, 2019

REGINA RATOMA BERTRAND FAZEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

         (Judge Keeley)

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [DKT. NO. 18], DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [DKT. NO. 13], GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [DKT. NO. 17], AND DISMISSING THE CASE WITH PREJUDICE

          IRENE M. KEELEY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On March 26, 2018, the plaintiff, Regina Ratoma Bertrand Fazen (“Fazen”), filed a complaint seeking review of the adverse decision of the defendant, Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) (Dkt. No. 1). On December 20, 2018, the Honorable Michael J. Aloi, United States Magistrate Judge, issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), recommending that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision (Dkt. No. 18). Pending before the Court are Fazen's timely objections to the Magistrate Judge's recommendations (Dkt. No. 19).

         For the reasons that follow, the Court OVERRULES Fazen's objections (Dkt. No. 19) and ADOPTS the R&R (Dkt. No. 18). Accordingly, it DENIES Fazen's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 13), GRANTS the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 17), AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision, and DISMISSES this case WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). As part of its review of the R&R, the Court incorporates by reference Magistrate Judge Aloi's thorough recitation of the facts surrounding Fazen's disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) claims, as well as his articulation of the Commissioner's five-step evaluation process (Dkt. No. 18 at 2-32). Because Fazen's arguments on appeal relate only to her alleged mental impairments, the Court focuses its discussion on that issue.

         A. Factual

         The record reflects that Fazen began seeing psychiatrist Alfredo Aguirre, M.D. (“Dr. Aguirre”) no later than December 2011, at which time she reported feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration, and moodiness, a personal history of anxiety, depression and migraine headaches, and a family history of bipolar disorder (Dkt. No. 9-9 at 41). On December 7, 2011, Dr. Aguirre diagnosed Fazen with major depression, anxiety disorder, and panic disorder, and prescribed an antidepressant. Id. at 41. Dr. Aguirre continued to treat Fazen once every one to two months over the next several years, prescribing various mental health medications as she continued to report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

         On August 2, 2012, Fazen, then 36 years old, filed a “protective” application for disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of June 1, 2012 (Dkt. No. 9-7 at 1-8). On March 25, 2014, Dr. Aguirre completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire at the request of the state agency (Dkt. No. 9-10 at 30-39). Dr. Aguirre opined that Fazen had marked daily living restrictions; extreme social functioning difficulties; extreme concentration, persistence, or pace difficulties; and one or two extended episodes of decompensation within a 12-month period. Id. at 34. He also indicated, however, that Fazen was not limited in understanding and remembering short and simple instructions and was only moderately limited in remembering locations and work-like procedures. Id. at 36.

         In terms of concentration and persistence, Dr. Aguirre opined that, with the exception of marked limitations in the abilities to carry out detailed instructions and to sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, Fazen was only moderately limited in other abilities in this category, including the following: carrying out simple instructions; maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods; performing activities within a schedule, maintaining regular attendance, and being punctual; working in coordination with or proximity to others without being distracted by them; making simple work-related decisions; completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms; and performing at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. Id. at 36-37.

         Dr. Aguirre further opined that, while Fazen was markedly limited in adaptation (i.e., , the ability to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting) and some social interaction abilities (e.g., the ability to accept instructions and respond appropriate to criticism from supervisors), there was no evidence that she was limited in her abilities to get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, or to maintain socially appropriate behavior and to adhere to basic standards or neatness or cleanliness. Id. at 37-38.

         B. Procedural

         The Commissioner denied Fazen's claims at both the initial and reconsideration levels (Dkt. No. 9-5 at 3-7, 12-18). Upon Fazen's request, Administrative Law Judge Karen B. Kostol (“ALJ”) held a hearing on May 8, 2014 (Dkt. No. 9-3 at 2-25), following which she denied Fazen's claim (Dkt. No. 9-4 at 51-66). Fazen sought review from the Appeals Council, which remanded the case to the ALJ. Id. at 71-74.

         Following a supplemental hearing on December 5, 2016 (Dkt. No. 9-2 at 50-81), the ALJ entered a second decision denying Fazen's claims on August 29, 2017. Id. at 21-46. On January 26, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Fazen's request for review, id. at 2-4, which made the ALJ's second decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Thereafter, on March 26, 2018, Fazen filed suit in this Court, seeking reversal of the Commissioner's final ...


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