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Rivers v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 28, 2017

RONALD DAVID RIVERS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          ORDER RE: CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          MARIA-ELENA JAMES United States Magistrate Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Ronald David Rivers (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (“Defendant”), the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for disability benefits. Pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Mot., Dkt. No. 19; Cross-Mot., Dkt. No. 24. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 16-5, the motions have been submitted on the papers without oral argument. Having carefully reviewed the parties' positions, the Administrative Record (“AR”), and relevant legal authority, the Court hereby GRANTS Plaintiff's motion and DENIES Defendant's cross-motion for the reasons set forth below.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff contended he was disabled by mental impairments he developed as a result of being falsely accused of, and incarcerated for, crimes he did not commit. See Mot. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) found Plaintiff's mental impairments were not sufficiently severe so to preclude his ability to work, and denied his applications.

         SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION PROCEEDINGS

         On August 24, 2012, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning on July 11, 2006. AR 224-227 (DIB), 228-236 (SSI). On January 11, 2013, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's claim, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify for disability benefits. AR 91 (DIB), 92 (SSI), 67-78 (SSI Explanation), 79-90 (DIB Explanation). Plaintiff subsequently filed requests for reconsideration, which were denied on July 30, 2013. AR 130-141. On September 13, 2013, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR 145-147. ALJ Michael Blume conducted a hearing on September 30, 2014. AR 27-66. Plaintiff testified in person at the hearing and was represented by counsel, Brian Baghai. As is relevant here, the ALJ also heard testimony from medical expert Dr. Calvin VanderPlate.

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff has a Bachelor of Science degree in telecommunications; he worked in this field as a system administrator for 11 years. AR 30, 32. He was incarcerated in 2006 and paroled in 2012. AR 31.

         When asked why he could not work, Plaintiff testified: “I am having issues getting a job. I believe that my criminal history has something to do with it . . . . I am thinking if I can get in there then I should be okay. But getting in there has been an issue. I just - they don't like the criminal history.” AR 33. The ALJ asked Plaintiff, “So as far as you are concerned you can work?” Id. Plaintiff replied: “Well, yeah. I mean, I have issues with my anxiety, but I am thinking that I could . . . get in there and try.” Id. Upon questioning by his lawyer, Plaintiff clarified that it would be “useless to try to get along with” supervisors “because they are out to . . . do their job, which is to micro manage and I just get nervous and anxious and have the depression and I have had it with supervisors before.” AR 48.

         Plaintiff enrolled in school for paralegal studies in 2013. AR 31-32. He spends approximately six hours a week in class. AR 32. He is doing well, earning As and Bs. Id. There are about 20 people in his class; he takes the information away from class then works on it and brings it back. AR 44. He pays for his studies with a government grant and a school loan. AR 31. He testified that he can be around others at school if it is not for a long period of time, but he “go[es] there and [he] bear[s] it.” AR 33. He also takes online classes where he does not have to interact with people. AR 33. He “definitely” works best in a setting where he can be alone. Id. In addition to his classwork, Plaintiff goes to the library or learning center to study; he also does homework. AR 37. He prefers to go shopping for groceries when the store first opens and no one is there. AR 43. He takes the bus but gets anxious because there are people there. Id. His anxiety and nervousness are worse when the bus is crowded. AR 44.

         Plaintiff is prescribed Zoloft, Vistaril, and Benadryl, but he does not take these medications because he does not trust the people giving him the prescriptions. AR 34. Believing the District Attorney who prosecuted him is still after him, he fears the medicine will not allow him to think: “I need to be able to think and so every time I have taken their medicine then it puts me in a weird cycle to where everything is different.” AR 35. He refused mental health medication while in prison because he did not trust the people giving it to him: “I don't know what they were giving me or for what reason, what it was doing to me, and I needed to stay focused.” AR 42. He believed prison authorities were trying to blur his thinking or keep him from thinking straight so that they could control him. AR 42. Since he was paroled in 2012, Plaintiff sees doctors for his anxiety. AR 35-36. He sees Dr. Garcia, a psychiatrist, every other month; he also sees Dr. Girtman, a psychologist, once a month. Id.

         Plaintiff has acquaintances at school, but no friends he trusts and no family in the area. AR 38. He testified that he has trust issues because he has been surrounded by people who are out to get him: the DA, the people with whom he was incarcerated, and now the parole staff. AR 40. He believes the DA and his cell mates were being influenced by evil spirits. AR 40-41. At the time of the hearing, he had been homeless and living in his car for two years. AR 30. He does not sleep well at night: he is 6'1” and 234 pounds and his car is “really small”; in addition, he is worried about his safety. AR 30, 38. He receives general assistance. AR 31. He takes Benadryl “now and then” for sleep. AR 34.

         Plaintiff attempted suicide in 1985. AR 39. When stressed, he experiences visual distortions and auditory hallucinations; these occur two to three times a week and can last into the next day. AR 41. Since he was paroled, Plaintiff has gotten into verbal conflicts with a classmate, a teacher, and therapists. AR 44-48.

         B. Medical Evidence

         In September 2007, Plaintiff reported to a prison psychologist that he attempted suicide in 1985, but explained how therapy after the incident helped him feel “resolved.” AR 547; AR 686 (Plaintiff put a gun to his head and was hospitalized for four days). He stated he did not want mental health services, and that he would seek help if he got depressed and/or suicidal; the psychologist documented there was “no evidence of mental illness.” AR 547. Plaintiff was in the care of “CCCMS”[1] for at least some time during his incarceration, but he reported to his parole case worker that he only was classified as “3C” because he wanted to take anger and stress management classes that were only available to inmates with mental health classifications. AR 381, 414, 417-19, 716.

         Plaintiff was placed on suicide watch in December 2007 after reporting he believed his cellmate was possessed by evil spirits and was “messing with his head.” See AR 374 (admitted in December 2007 to homicidal intent: wants to kill cellmate because he is “stupid”); AR 419 (in February 2008, reporting delusional episode with prior cellmate “a few months ago”; reporting current cellmate also “messing with his head”); AR 462 (on watch for 7 days in December 2007; diagnosed “psychosis [not otherwise specified (‘NOS')]” and “delusions”). This incident was not the first time Plaintiff believed people were possessed by evil spirits: he explained to a therapist in January 2008 that he believed his sister-in-law communicated with evil spirits, poisoned his food and jinxed his ability to get a job. AR 414, 420, 458. In May 2008, Plaintiff was again placed on watch for suicidal thoughts after he asserted his cellmate's evil spirits gave him bad dreams. AR 483, 488, 555, 582. In June 2008, Plaintiff continued to discuss witchcraft and his doctor noted this suggested that Plaintiff experienced delusions of the persecutory type and a “pattern of judging this way anyone / people he does not trust.” AR 458. In August 2008, Dr. Escoffon noted that Plaintiff did not want to be “labeled” due to past delusional incidents, which Plaintiff said were just “defenses.” AR 450. Plaintiff continued to discuss evil spirits with his mental health providers thereafter. See, e.g., AR 446 (in November 2008, Dr. Escoffon wrote that Plaintiff was currently stable without medication, but that he “still has symptoms of paranoia with delusional thinking” but is able to reflect and acknowledge that “his thought might not reflect what is actually true”); AR 443 (in March 2009, Dr. Escoffon noted that Plaintiff had questions about evil spirits and “normalcy of tuning into them”); AR 442 (in June 2009, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Escoffon that his “cellie's spirits are making me have bad dreams”; Dr. Escoffon wrote: “He has linear thought process-other than delusional thinking re: sprits”); AR 552 (in August 2009, wanted to talk about ways to communicate with evil spirits). He continued to have problems with cellmates and wanted to change clinicians. See AR 550 (“He's having problems w/ cellie similar to previous cellies but does not want his beliefs to seem ‘delusional' and thus guardedly said he would not talk about it.”); AR 553 (in June 2009, Plaintiff “was wanting to change clinicians. Explored reasons why & discussion parallel to his repeated pattern of wanting to change cellies.”). Dr. Escoffon and other clinicians frequently noted that Plaintiff was oriented, was well-groomed, denied suicidal or homicidal ideation, and was generally pleasant and cooperative. See passim. In January 2008, Dr. Landry noted no evidence of thought disorder, that Plaintiff was oriented to time and space, and well groomed; he also observed Plaintiff had “at least normal intelligence. BS in communication. Likely to underrepresent symptoms.” AR 594.

         Plaintiff's prison records include diagnoses for “delusional disorder” in January 2008 (AR 592), “mood disorder” in May 2008 (AR 385), “psychosis NOS” in December 2007 (AR 408), “symptoms of paranoia with delusional thinking” in November 2008 (AR 562), “delusional disorder NOS persecutory type” in January 2009 (AR 444), “psychosis NOS (delusional disorder)” in June 2009 (AR 483), “delusional disorder NOS persecutory type” and “personality disorder NOS” in June 2009 (AR 555), personality disorder NOS and delusional disorder NOS in October 2009 (AR 550), depression, “c/o” insomnia and anxiety in May 2012 (AR 664). Throughout his time in prison, he declined mental health medication, and his treaters agreed that medications were not indicated. See passim.

         In February 2011, Plaintiff requested a mental health visit and reported he was “getting a little paranoid” because he was handling his appeal pro se and did not want anyone seeing or messing with his legal papers, which were all in his cell; he wanted something to calm himself but otherwise did not want or need mental health treatment; he was found to be oriented to time and space, clear and coherent. AR 647. In May 2012, Plaintiff reported he could not sleep because he was having anxiety about his impending release, where he ...


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