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Thrasher v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Alaska

August 12, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


SHARON L. GLEASON, District Judge.

Kathleen Thrasher initiated this Social Security appeal in federal district court after exhausting administrative remedies. The appeal has been fully briefed by the parties, [1] and oral argument was held on February 27, 2014 in Anchorage, Alaska.[2] For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's determination will be affirmed.


Ms. Thrasher is 45 years old.[3] She has completed at least four years of college studying psychology and human services, but she does not have a college degree.[4] In 1994, she worked for no more than one week as a sheet folder in a hotel.[5] From 1994 to 1997, she worked as a cashier and waitress.[6] In 1998 and 1999, she worked as a social service aide at Arc of Anchorage.[7] In 2000, she worked for one week as a sales clerk at Walmart, and then in 2004 she worked for a couple months as a folding machine feeder in a print shop.[8] Most recently, from November 2005 to March 2006, she worked as a counter attendant at a coffee shop.[9]

The record reflects that Ms. Thrasher was abused by her father as a child and has been a victim in abusive relationships as an adult. She has a long history of substance abuse and suffers from depression and other mental impairments.[10]

I. Ms. Thrasher's Application for Supplemental Security Income.

Ms. Thrasher filed the current application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") with the State of Alaska Disability Determination Services ("DDS") with a protective filing date of January 20, 2011.[11] She alleged a disability onset date of January 24, 2008.[12] She listed depression, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and anxiety disorder as the conditions that limit her ability to work.[13]

On March 17, 2011, DDS denied Ms. Thrasher's application for SSI.[14] Thereafter, Ms. Thrasher requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which the Social Security Administration ("SSA") acknowledged receiving in a letter dated July 12, 2011.[15] Ms. Thrasher's hearing was set for November 29, 2011.[16] On November 28, 2011, Ms. Thrasher called SSA and requested a postponement.[17] She stated she was "still seeking representation." The SSA representative "asked her to attend her hearing and let the Judge know she is wishing to obtain representation."[18]

Ms. Thrasher appeared at the hearing the next day before ALJ Paul Hebda and requested a postponement.[19] She testified, "I really need to, to have an attorney, because I'm really not prepared."[20] The ALJ agreed to give Ms. Thrasher one postponement, [21] and the hearing was rescheduled.[22] Ms. Thrasher subsequently obtained representation, [23] and the hearing took place on March 13, 2012 in Anchorage, Alaska before ALJ Hebda.[24]

II. The Administrative Record.

The administrative record before the ALJ reflects the following:

A. Ms. Thrasher's Mental Health Treatment Records.

Ms. Thrasher has been seeing mental health specialists since childhood.[25] In the years relevant to her SSI application, Ms. Thrasher has sought mental health treatment from Anchorage Community Mental Health Services ("ACMHS").[26] It appears she first visited ACMHS sometime in late 2005 or early 2006 following a drug overdose.[27] She then began medication management and psychotherapy at ACMHS.[28] From November 16, 2006 to August 2, 2007, Ms. Thrasher consulted with Christina Haskell, MS, on several occasions about medications.[29] On August 15, 2007, she began seeing Dr. Janet Dipreta.[30]

Sometime in late 2007, Ms. Thrasher enrolled in a court-ordered, long-term inpatient alcohol treatment program at the Akeela House after receiving a second DUI.[31] On January 25, 2008-the day after Ms. Thrasher's alleged onset date-Dr. Dipreta conducted a psychiatric evaluation of Ms. Thrasher.[32] Dr. Dipreta diagnosed Ms. Thrasher with major depressive disorder, recurrent and severe but without psychotic features; chronic PTSD; alcohol dependence in early remission in a controlled setting; and polysubstance dependence, including cocaine and amphetamines, in sustained remission.[33] Dr. Dipreta assessed a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 35.[34] Dr. Dipreta recommended that Ms. Thrasher continue taking Effexor, noting Ms. Thrasher's depression "has responded very well to this."[35] She also recommended Ms. Thrasher continue taking Topomax, as well as trazodone and propranolol for insomnia and anxiety, respectively.[36] Finally, she recommended that Ms. Thrasher continue psychotherapy.[37]

Ms. Thrasher met with Dr. Dipreta again on February 22, 2008.[38] At this visit, Ms. Thrasher reported she was "doing great" and had "become one of the group leaders" at the Akeela House.[39] Dr. Dipreta's notes indicate that Ms. Thrasher's "mood symptoms have been stable on medications."[40]

After the February 2008 visit, Ms. Thrasher continued to see Dr. Dipreta approximately once every two months. In April 2008, Ms. Thrasher reported she had been "demoted as group leader" because a fellow group leader misbehaved, but she also indicated the Akeela House program was therapeutic.[41] Additionally, at that visit, as well as on visits in June and August 2008, Ms. Thrasher reported that her medications-particularly Effexor and Topomax-were generally effective in controlling the symptoms of her depression.[42] Nonetheless, at the August 2008 visit, Ms. Thrasher expressed a desire "not to be dependent on medications, even though they are working and basically without side effects."[43]

Ms. Thrasher met with Dr. Dipreta again in October 2008, and at this visit she reported, "I'm not doing so good anymore, I have been drinking."[44] She also reported that she had recently been asked to leave the Akeela House because of her drinking.[45] Dr. Dipreta's notes state, "[Ms. Thrasher] understands that benefits of meds are limited in the face of ongoing alcohol use and it is particularly concerning[] that she is taking meds and not committing to sobriety."[46] Her notes also state, "[Ms. Thrasher] recognizes that she does need to work and believes that she is able to do so but has not yet looked for employment."[47]

On January 22, 2009, Ms. Thrasher sought treatment at the emergency room at Providence Alaska Medical Center ("PAMC") for injuries she sustained as a result of being punched multiple times in the face, nose, and side of her head by a male companion.[48] Around the same time, Ms. Thrasher's therapist referred her to the Providence Crisis Recovery Center ("PCRC"), where she was evaluated for "an inability to stop using drugs and drinking, deepening depression and very recent history of trauma that has become increasingly bothersome to her."[49] PCRC initially assessed a GAF score of 35.[50]

Ms. Thrasher stayed at PCRC for one week.[51] PCRC's February 10, 2009 discharge summary states that during the course of Ms. Thrasher's stay, she "attended all groups and interacted appropriately with peers and staff."[52] She also "respond[ed] to education on how to manage her strong feelings more effectively" and "was willing and able to demonstrate effective use of coping and containment skills." And her "ability to sleep improved and her mood stability became more consistent."[53] The discharge summary notes that Ms. Thrasher had "expressed a willingness to work with [ACMHS] and VocRehab towards obtaining permanent independent housing and possible employment opportunities."[54] PCRC assessed a GAF score of 50 at the time of discharge.[55]

Ms. Thrasher again met with Dr. Dipreta at ACMHS on March 19, 2009.[56] At this visit, Ms. Thrasher reported that she had been sober since March 11, 2009, that she had checked into a shelter, and that she was hoping to get into treatment at Clitheroe.[57] The following day, Dr. Dipreta performed a psychiatric evaluation update on Ms. Thrasher.[58] Dr. Dipreta's assessment states:

[Ms. Thrasher's] mood symptoms and anxiety symptoms have responded well to the current medications [and] to regular therapy. She readily acknowledges when she maintains sobriety and is compliant with medications that she does fairly well. Nevertheless, she has struggled with ambivalence about maintaining sobriety as has been marked by ongoing indecisiveness about her commitment to inpatient substance abuse treatment.[59]

Dr. Dipreta assessed a GAF score of 50.[60] Among other things, she recommended Ms. Thrasher continue on her medications and with individual therapy.[61]

Ms. Thrasher met with Dr. Dipreta again on June 25, 2009 and reported "doing better."[62] Ms. Thrasher next saw Dr. Dipreta on November 5, 2009. Then, she told Dr. Dipreta that she had found an apartment.[63] She also reported that "she was doing quite good on medication, but that she ran out and decided she might as well try to stop medication." When symptoms returned, she went back on Effexor. She acknowledged that she should not have tried to stop taking her medications and "express[ed] a renewed willingness... to be fully adherent with medications and appointments."[64]

On February 6, 2010, Ms. Thrasher once again sought treatment at the PAMC emergency room for injuries she sustained as a result of being kicked in the face by "her boyfriend."[65] The following day, Ms. Thrasher was brought back to the emergency room after calling the paramedics and stating that she and another friend had "made a suicide pact' and had taken a large amount of sedatives."[66] On February 8, 2010, Dr. Anthony Blanford consulted with Ms. Thrasher at PAMC.[67] His notes state:

[Ms. Thrasher] states she overdosed on about 60 doxepin but almost immediately panicked and had her friend call for help. There was almost no real "pact." In fact, she and her friend seemed to be parting and doing okay and then started to feel poorly. Then suddenly both decided that they wanted to kill themselves.[68]

Dr. Blanford assessed a GAF score of 30 and recommended that Ms. Thrasher be hospitalized on a voluntary basis, to which she agreed.[69] On February 10, 2012, Dr. Blanford increased the dosage of Ms. Thrasher's Effexor.[70] Two days later, Ms. Thrasher was discharged from PAMC with instructions to follow up with ...

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