Boylstein v. Berryhill

Decision Date16 November 2018
Docket NumberCivil No. 4:18-CV-174
PartiesKURT BOYLSTEIN, Plaintiff v. NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania

Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

Civil No. 4:18-CV-174


November 16, 2018

(Magistrate Judge Carlson)


I. Introduction

For Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), Social Security disability determinations frequently entail an informed assessment of competing medical opinions coupled with an evaluation of a claimant's subjective complaints. Once the ALJ completes this task, on appeal it is the duty and responsibility of the district court to review these ALJ findings, judging the findings against a deferential standard of review which simply asks whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record, see 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F. Supp.2d 533, 536 (M.D.Pa. 2012), a quantum of proof which "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a

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reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

In the instant case, an ALJ denied a disability application submitted by Kurt Boylstein, a man in his 40's whose self-reported activities of daily living disclosed a significant level of physical and emotional functioning. After reviewing this evidence, the competing medical opinions offered by Boylstein's physician and a state agency expert, and taking into account his activities of daily living, the ALJ denied this claim. Mindful of the fact that substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), we find that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's findings in this case. Therefore, for the reasons set forth below, we will affirm the decision of the Commissioner denying this claim.

II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

A. Medical and Procedural History

On September 15, 2014, Kurt Boylstein applied for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging the onset of his disability in July of 2011. (Tr. 20.) Boylstein was born in 1967 and was in his 40's at the time of the alleged onset of this disability. (Tr. 26.) He had a high school education and had previously been employed as a correctional officer. (Tr. 26-7.)

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According to Boylstein he was disabled due to the combined impact of degenerative disc disease, obesity, bi-polar and post-traumatic stress disorders. (Tr. 22.) Despite these impairments, Boylstein described an active and full lifestyle in his disability application and at his disability hearing. For example, in October of 2014 Boylstein described his activities of daily living in the following terms:

My whole day is spent caring for my son. I might do some reading, clean the kitchen, do laundry, put his toys away. When my wife gets home, I usually read, shower, cook breakfast and lunch.

(Tr. 172).

Boylstein further explained that that he had no problems with his personal care, (Tr. 172), was able to go out alone and drive, (Tr. 173), shopped for groceries, books, and music, (Tr. 174), and enjoyed an array of hobbies including reading, watching sports and old movies, and walking. (Tr. 175.) While reporting episodes of anxiety, Boylstein also described an intellectually and physically demanding lifestyle, stating that he reads every day, walks three to four times a week without problems, (Tr. 175), and is "fine" walking a couple of miles. (Tr. 176.) Boylstein also reported that he regularly exercised at a gym (Tr. 175) and testified at his October 2016 disability hearing before the ALJ that up until "a couple of months" prior to the hearing, he "was going to the gym every day, five days a week." (Tr. 51.)

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At the administrative hearing on October 19, 2016, Boylstein also testified that that since the alleged onset of his disability in 2011, he had vacationed in Tennessee, and traveled to Niagara Falls and Gettysburg. (Tr. 45.) In addition to providing child care for his son while his wife worked,1 Boylstein described a significant level of intellectual functioning in the form of recreational reading, testifying that: "I read pretty much anything, horror, science fiction, true crime, historical fiction-I'm reading a lot of right now," and stating that he was still able to read "bigger books, like 4 or 500 pages" in just "a week or two." (Tr. 52.)

Boylstein's medical records also generally presented a picture of a person who faced some impairments, but retained the capacity to engage in substantial activities. For example, in February and July of 2016 Boylstein's primary care physicians reported that his strength was 5/5 bilaterally, the motor strength in his extremities was intact, and his reflexes were normal. (Tr. 433.) In addition these examinations revealed that Boylstein had full range of motion with no deformities or effusions. (Tr. 436.). Likewise, Boylstein was described as displaying a normal affect, being alert and oriented, and demonstrating articulate and fluent speech. (Tr.

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433.) Boylstein himself reported to his primary care physician that he was "[d]oing well overall" and "[d]oing well" with his depression and anxiety. (Tr. 435.)

With respect to Boylstein's emotional state, the principal issue presented in this appeal, the record before the ALJ presented a mixed and equivocal picture of the degree to which Boylstein's emotional impairments were wholly disabling. Boylstein had treated these mental health conditions through Commonwealth Affiliates Services, Inc. from January 2010 to August 2016. (Tr. 339-419.) These treatment records revealed that Boylstein was being treated for depression and anxiety through medication and counseling. (Id.) In the course of this treatment, he reported greater difficulty with anxiety than with his depression, but Boylstein consistently presented as cooperative and appropriate, and denied severe symptoms such as suicidal or homicidal thoughts, delusions or hallucinations. (Id.)

Even though the medical records seemed to reflect a fairly constant state of care and reported no acute episodes, on September 6, 2016, Michael S. Greevy, Ph.D., a psychologist with Commonwealth Affiliates Services, Inc., completed a mental impairment questionnaire for Boylstein in which he opined that Boylstein was uncomfortable around others, distractible, self-doubting, easily tired, over-reactive to criticism, aloof, anxious, and unfocused. According to Dr. Greevy Boylstein was unable to maintain attention for two-hour segments, make simple

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work-related decisions, perform at a consistent pace with excessive breaks, respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting, and deal with work stress. (Tr. 335.) Dr. Greevy also found that Boylstein had marked functional limitations in maintaining social functioning and with concentration, persistence, or pace, (Tr. 337), and would be absent from work about four days a month due to his impairments or treatment. (Tr. 338.) Accordingly, Dr. Greevy expressed the opinion that Boylstein's mental impairments were wholly disabling. (Tr. 419.)

Dr. Greevy's opinion stood in stark contrast to Boylstein's reported activities of daily living and was also contradicted by the opinion of an examining consultative source, Michael DeWulf, Ph.D., who conducted a mental status examination of Boylstein on February 10, 2015. (Tr. 289,) Dr. DeWulf's report of this examination reflected that Boylstein drove to this examination, (Tr. 289), was casually dressed and well groomed, (Tr. 290), and displayed normal posture and motor behavior, (Tr. 290), as well as appropriate eye contact. (Tr. 290.) Boylstein's speech was fluent, his voice was clear, and his expressive and receptive language was adequate. (Tr. 290.) His thought process was coherent and goal-directed with no evidence of hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia. (Tr. 290.) His affect was appropriate, he was oriented, and his attention and concentration appeared intact. (Tr. 291.) His insight and judgment were good. (Tr. 291.)

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Boylstein also confirmed for Dr. DeWulf his ability to perform a full range of activities of daily living, explaining that he was able to dress, bathe, and groom himself; (Tr. 291), he cooked and prepared food; (Tr. 291), performed general cleaning and laundry; (Tr. 291), and was able to shop, manage money, drive, and use public transportation. (Tr. 291.) His hobbies and interests included coin and stamp collecting, collecting memorabilia and books, listening to music, watching television, visiting the Friendship Center, exercising, and reading. (Tr. 291.)

Based upon this examination, and after taking into account Boylstein's self-reported activities, Dr. DeWulf disgnosed Boylstein with bi-polar and post-traumatic stress disorders, but found that these impairments did not appear to be significant enough to interfere with Boylstein's ability to function on a daily basis. (Tr. 292.) Instead, Dr. DeWulf found that Boylstein's ability to understand, remember, and carry out instructions was not affected by his impairments; he had no limitations in interacting appropriately with the public; he had mild limitations in interacting with supervisors and co-workers; and he had mild limitations in responding appropriately to usual work situations and to changes in a routine work setting. (Tr. 294.)

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B. The ALJ's Decision

It was against this medical and factual backdrop that the ALJ conducted a hearing into Boylstein's disability claim on October 19, 2016. (Tr. 33-66.) Boylstein and a vocational expert appeared and testified at this hearing. (Id.) Following this ALJ hearing, on December 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying this application for disability benefits. (Tr. 17-28.) In this decision, the ALJ first found that Boylstein met the insured requirements of the...

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