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Sergey F. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 27, 2019

Sergey F., Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Katherine Menendez, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. (Pl.’s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pl.’s Mot.”), ECF No. 11; Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.’s Mot.”), ECF No. 19.) For the reasons set forth below, Sergey F.’s (hereafter “Mr. F”) motion for summary judgment is GRANTED and the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED.

         I. Factual Background and ALJ Decision[1]

         Mr. F was born in Russia and had a very difficult childhood, which included severe abuse, exposure to violence within his family, and other trauma. (R. 402.) He has received a number of mental health diagnoses over the years, including: posttraumatic stress disorder; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; depression; anxiety; antisocial personality disorder; and bipolar disorder. Over a fifteen-year period, he was fired from every job he held based on his inability to control his behaviors. (R. 344–45, 351, 402.) Mr. F’s issues with anger and erratic behavior have also significantly strained his personal and family relationships. (R. 345, 352, 402.)

         Mr. F first filed for disability insurance benefits on February 5, 2015 and Supplemental Security Income on March 13, 2015, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2013. (R. 218, 222.) His claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 120, 135.) He timely requested a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Micah Pharris, which was held on June 13, 2017. (R. 33.) On July 20, 2017, ALJ Pharris issued an unfavorable decision. Mr. F timely filed a request for review to the Appeals Council, which was denied on March 30, 2018. Thus, the ALJ’s decision became the final determination of the Commissioner, making Mr. F’s case ripe for review by this Court.

         A. Opinions of Treating Providers

         After a psychiatric hospitalization in February 2013, (R. 341, 346), Mr. F began psychiatric treatment with Jennifer Wolfe, RN, CNS, Psychiatric Advanced Practice Nurse. (R. 402.) Mr. F continues treatment with Nurse Wolfe to this day, and her care of him includes prescribing and managing psychiatric medication. (Id.) During her first exam, she described Mr. F as agitated, easily angered and impulsive, with a limited and short attention span, a depressed mood, short-term memory problems, and intense speech. (Id.) Nurse Wolfe diagnosed Mr. F with impulse control and bipolar disorders in addition to anger management issues. (R. at 403.) She later added diagnoses of intermittent explosive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (R. 376, 397.)

         On December 17, 2015, Nurse Wolfe noted that Mr. F “may be at baseline in terms of what medications can do for him.” (R. 433.) Despite being on several medications to treat his mental-health conditions, Mr. F experienced ongoing and severe challenges managing his mood, anger, focus, and anxiety. (R. 432–33.) Nurse Wolfe noted that Mr. F “[a]voids leaving the house due to anxiety around other people, ” and is “[a]bsolutely incapable of holding a job.” (R. 432.) Even while on his medications, Mr. F appeared dysthymic and anxious, with scattered memory and limited attention due to his ADHD. (R. 433.) He was hypervigilant and had abnormal thoughts that were “bordering of psychotically paranoid.” (Id.) His PHQ-9 score, which measures the severity of an individual’s depression symptoms, was 20. (Id.) Nurse Wolfe “strongly encouraged” Mr. F to return to psychotherapy, which he did in April 2016. (R. 434, 462.)

         Mr. F’s condition worsened over time. On March 22, 2016, Nurse Wolfe saw Mr. F and noted a “flat and irritable” mood, with high anxiety, ongoing problems managing his anger, and trouble with focus. (R. 441.) Mr. F had severe difficulty sleeping, reporting that he hadn’t slept for “several days.” (Id.) His other complaints included an “inability to be a ‘normal person’ and to be around other people, shakiness towards the evening, ‘poor memory, ’ [and] zoning out and ending up at the wrong store.” (Id.) Nurse Wolfe noted that Mr. F presented as “highly anxious, slightly agitated, [and] tensely wound.” (Id.) Notably, Mr. F experienced these challenges despite medication compliance. (Id.) At another appointment a few weeks later, on April 12, 2016, Mr. F presented once again as “highly anxious, dysphoric, [and] blunted.” (R. 444.) This pattern continued, and Mr. F showed little to no change or improvement in his symptoms over the following nine months. (R. 447– 461.)

         In addition to taking his medication and attending regular appointments with Nurse Wolfe, Mr. F began seeing David Schmitt, MSW, LICSW, for psychotherapy. (R. 462.) At his first appointment in April 2016, Mr. F’s PHQ-9 score was 20, and his GAD-7 score was 17. (Id.) He was experiencing severe impairment due to depressed mood and moderate impairment due to social withdrawal. (R. 464–65.) Additionally, Mr. F consistently reported social and interpersonal challenges including an inability to engage socially and “apparent social phobia.” (See, e.g., R. 498.) Mr. Schmitt’s records include several examples of Mr. F’s inability to handle social situations. In May 2016, he had to leave a Twins baseball game after getting in a fight with his wife. (R. 472.) Around the same time, he had to hide from his son’s birthday party. (R. 496.) On September 28, 2016, Mr. F reported that he had gone to the zoo, but “couldn’t handle it.” (R. 499.) He stated that after somebody stepped on his toe, he had to leave. (Id.) That same day, Mr. Schmitt notes that Mr. F. was “extremely anxious and unable to find relief on a daily basis.” (Id.)

         Mr. F continued to experience severe mental health symptoms. On December 19, 2016, Mr. F missed his appointment with Mr. Schmitt because of an earlier panic attack. He explained that he had an earlier appointment with Nurse Wolfe, but then got lost attempting to find his car after the appointment, which caused the attack. (R. 513.) Nurse Wolfe noted on February 20, 2017 that Mr. F was experiencing fullblown panic attacks every few weeks when in public, and that his irritability and depressed mood were “very high.” (R. 531.) On May 23, 2017, Mr. F reported to Nurse Wolfe that he was still having full panic attacks and experiencing depression and irritability. (R. 534.) Nurse Wolfe noted that Mr. F smashed a model boat that he was making. (Id.) These severe mental-health symptoms continue throughout the time period covered by the record.

         Nurse Wolfe provided a three-page medical source statement on February 14, 2017. She noted a poor prognosis, explaining that Mr. F was receiving high doses of multiple psychiatric medications with only limited success. (R. 425.) She rated Mr. F’s ability to perform a number of work-related mental activities as “poor, ” with no useful ability to function, including, inter alia, the ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods, work with or near others without being distracted by them, interact appropriately with the public, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and complete a normal workday or workweek. (R. 425–426.) She supported these conclusions with observations from her treatment of Mr. F. (Id.) She opined that he would be off task for more than 25% of a typical workday, and that Mr. F’s impairments would cause him to absent from work more than four days per month.

         On April 20, 2017, Mr. Schmitt completed a medical source statement. He also reported a poor prognosis, stating there had been “no change in years.” (R. 525.) Mr. Schmitt opined that Mr. F had no useful ability to function in a number of persistence and pace activities or work-related activities involving interacting with others. (R. 525–26.) Like Nurse Wolfe, he determined that Mr. F would be off task at least 25% of a typical workday and would be absent from work more than four days per month. (R. 526–27.) Dr. Andrew D. Krueger, a psychological evaluations specialist who collaborated with Nurse Wolfe and Mr. Schmitt, completed a psychological evaluation of Mr. F and performed an extensive record review. (R. 404, 522–23.) He concurred with Nurse Wolfe and Mr. Schmitt’s opinions in his own medical source statement. (R. 522.) Dr. Krueger determined that Mr. F has no useful ability to function in multiple “persistence and pace” and “interacting with others” categories. (R. 522–23.) He opined that “[t]he clinical data support severe cognitive, behavioral, and psychological functioning [limitations] daily.” (R. 523.)

         B. Consultative Examination and Opinions

         Dr. Donald Wiger, PhD, LP, performed a psychological evaluation for the Social Security Administration on April 30, 2015. During the exam, Mr. F reported that he “does not get along with other people” and “cannot take orders from other people and does not like being told what to do.” (R. 413.) He described the difficulties these anger problems had caused, including fights, being fired from jobs, difficulty socializing with coworkers and neighbors, legal problems, and domestic issues. (R. 413–14.) Based on this exam and a review of Mr. F’s ...

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