United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER RE: CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
MARIA-ELENA JAMES United States Magistrate Judge
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.
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.
SECURITY ADMINISTRATION PROCEEDINGS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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” 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.
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.
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.
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 ...