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Beaulieu v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 7, 2015

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


JOHN H. RICH III, Magistrate Judge.

The plaintiff in this Social Security Disability ("SSD") appeal[2] contends that the administrative law judge erred in failing to find that she suffered from a severe mental impairment before the last day of her eligibility for benefits. I affirm the commissioner's decision.

In accordance with the commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 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 only through December 31, 1986, Finding 1, Record at 77; that, before that date, the plaintiff suffered from the medically determinable impairment of an affective disorder, but that the impairment did not significantly limit her ability to perform basic work-related activities for a period of 12 consecutive months, and, therefore, the impairment was not severe, Findings 3-4, id. at 78; and that, as a result, the plaintiff was not under a disability, as that term is defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from the alleged date of onset of disability, January 1, 1985, through the date last insured, December 31, 1986, Finding 5, id. at 84. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 17-19, making it the determination of the commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; 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); 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 administrative law judge reached Step 2 of the sequential evaluation process, at which stage the claimant bears the burden of proof, but it is a de minimis burden, designed to do no more than screen out groundless claims. McDonald v. Secretary of Health & Humans 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 plaintiff essentially contends that the administrative law judge was required to accept the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Michael Rowland, rather than the opinions of the stateagency reviewing physicians. Itemized Statement of Specific Errors ("Itemized Statement") (ECF No. 17) at 9-11. Specifically, she asserts that the administrative law judge's decision to give little weight to the retrospective opinion of Dr. Michael Rowland, her primary care family practice physician in 1985-87 and from 2008 through the date of the decision, was not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 9-10.

The determinative question on appeal from a decision of the defendant is, of course, not whether there is substantial evidence in the record that would support a conclusion different from that drawn by the administrative law judge, but rather whether there is substantial evidence to support that conclusion. E.g., Gagnon v. Colvin, No. 2:13-cv-00213-NT, 2014 WL 3530629, at *4 (D. Me. July 15, 2014). The opinion upon which the plaintiff apparently relies is a letter dated February 23, 2012, in which Dr. Rowland stated, in relevant part:

This letter is submitted in support of permanent disability status for Cheryl Beaulieu, age 53. Cheryl was my primary care patient from 1985-1987, and from 2008 to present. I have reviewed her extensive records from 1987 to 2008 as well, and am familiar with her medical history.
Disability is primarily based on mental illness. She last worked in approximately 1982. In 1984, she married her present husband... and moved from Pennsylvania to Maine, leaving her entire family support network behind. She became pregnant in 1985, a pregnancy complicated by... a psychiatric hospitalization at KVMC for severe depression.
Following that pregnancy, she continued to have significant depression, and was again hospitalized at KVMC for depression in 1990.
Her third psychiatric admission occurred in 1994 to St. Marys, diagnosis major depression with psychosis, possible bipolar disorder. She was readmitted 6 months later with the same diagnosis.
She was cared for by TriCounty Mental Health (Dr. John Sytsma) from 1994 to 2004. Psychiatric management was challenging, with trials of 15 different psychotropic medications of various classes, settling ultimately on Lexapro and Seroquel. After 2004 she was lost to psychiatric follow[]up for ...

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