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Leblanc v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 30, 2014

JASON ROBERT LeBLANC, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION [1]

JOHN H. RICH, III, Magistrate Judge.

This Social Security Disability ("SSD") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge supportably determined that the plaintiff had no severe impairment or combination of impairments. The plaintiff argues that the administrative law judge erroneously relied on the opinion of an agency nonexamining consultant, Robert Maierhofer, Ph.D., that predated important later-submitted evidence from Counseling Services, Inc. ("CSI") and impermissibly interpreted raw medical evidence in evaluating the CSI records. See Itemized Statement of Errors Pursuant to Local Rule 16.3 Submitted by Plaintiff ("Statement of Errors") (ECF No. 10) at 2-5. I find no error and, accordingly, recommend that the court affirm the decision.

Pursuant to the commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Goodermote v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982), the administrative law judge found, in relevant part, that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2007, Finding 1, Record at 20; that he had medically determinable impairments of hepatitis C, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder ("ADD"), and substance addiction disorder, Finding 3, id.; that he had no impairment or combination of impairments that had significantly limited, or was expected to significantly limit, his ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months and, therefore, did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, Finding 4, id.; and that he, therefore, was not disabled from August 15, 2003, his alleged onset date of disability, through the date of the decision, June 11, 2012, Finding 5, id. at 25. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 1-3, making the decision the final determination of the commissioner, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; Dupuis v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 869 F.2d 622, 623 (1st Cir. 1989).

The standard of review of the commissioner's decision is whether the determination made is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Manso-Pizarro v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996). In other words, the determination must be supported by such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion drawn. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Rodriguez v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

The plaintiff's statement of errors implicates Step 2 of the sequential evaluation process. Although a claimant bears the burden of proof at Step 2, it is a de minimis burden, designed to do no more than screen out groundless claims. McDonald v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 795 F.2d 1118, 1124 (1st Cir. 1986). When a claimant produces evidence of an impairment, the commissioner may make a determination of non-disability at Step 2 only when the medical evidence "establishes only a slight abnormality or [a] combination of slight abnormalities which would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work even if the individual's age, education, or work experience were specifically considered." Id. (quoting Social Security Ruling 85-28).

I. Discussion

The record contains two expert opinions regarding the severity of the plaintiff's mental impairments. Agency nonexamining consultant David Margolis, Ph.D., completed a psychiatric review technique form ("PRTF") dated September 5, 2010, in which he indicated that the plaintiff had nonsevere affective and anxiety-related disorders that caused mild restriction of activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning, no difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation. See Record at 396, 406, 408. Dr. Maierhofer completed a PRTF dated April 1, 2011, in which he indicated that the plaintiff had nonsevere mental impairments of anxiety disorder, affective disorder, ADD/ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and alcohol/substance abuse disorder that caused mild restriction of activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation. See id. at 79-80.

The record contains CSI notes spanning the time period from January 31, 2011, through April 2, 2012. See id. at 477-84, 558-77, 766-75, 778-79.

The administrative law judge afforded great weight to the Maierhofer opinion, which he deemed "consistent with the record... evidence, which shows mental status consistently within normal limits and improvement of symptoms with medication." Id. at 24. He explained:

The first functional area is activities of daily living. In this area, the [plaintiff] has mild limitation. [He] testified that he attends sobriety meetings. He is able to prepare simple meals and shop. [He] reported playing in a baseball league.
The next functional area is social functioning. In this area, the [plaintiff] has mild limitation. [He] attends sobriety meetings and often chairs them. He reported [a] good relationship with his parents. The record shows that [he] has been involved in several romantic relationships. Treatment notes report that [he] was appropriate and cooperative.
The third functional area is concentration, persistence or pace. In this area, the [plaintiff] has mild limitation. Mental status examinations consistently describe [him] as alert and oriented with intact thought content and cognition.
The fourth functional area is episodes of decompensation. In this area, the [plaintiff] has experienced no episodes of decompensation ...

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