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Lamoreau v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

June 11, 2017

TROY E. LAMOREAU, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant

          MEMORANDUM DECISION [2]

          John H. Rich III United States Magistrate Judge.

         This Social Security Disability (“SSD”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge supportably found the plaintiff capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The plaintiff seeks remand on the bases that the administrative law judge (i) made a mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination unsupported by substantial evidence, (ii) improperly rejected the opinion of treating counselor Megan Bowdich, L.C.P.C., (iii) provided no adequate reason for rejecting a social limitation assessed by agency nonexamining consultants Brian Stahl, Ph.D., and Mary A. Burkhart, Ph.D., and (iv) erred in evaluating the plaintiff's credibility. See Itemized Statement of Errors Pursuant to Local Rule 16.3 Submitted by Plaintiff (“Statement of Errors”) (ECF No. 8) at 2-8. I conclude that the mental RFC determination is unsupported by substantial evidence, in part because of the administrative law judge's handling of the Burkhart and Stahl opinions. Accordingly, I remand this case for further proceedings consistent herewith.[3]

         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, 2012, Finding 1, Record at 14; that he had severe impairments of depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and schizotypal personality features, Finding 3, id.; that he had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: he could understand, remember, and carry out simple, repetitive instructions and persist at that level of complexity for eight hours a day, five days a week consistently, needed to avoid interaction with the general public, but could interact appropriately with coworkers and supervisors, and could adapt to routine changes in the work setting, Finding 5, id. at 16; that, considering his age (32 years old, defined as a younger individual, on his original alleged disability onset date, December 31, 2004), education (limited), work experience (transferability of skills immaterial), and RFC, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform, Findings 7-10, id. at 21-22; and that he, therefore, had not been disabled from April 5, 2011, his amended alleged disability onset date, through the date of the decision, March 27, 2015, Finding 11, id. at 22-23. 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 administrative law judge reached Step 5 of the sequential evaluation process, at which stage the burden of proof shifts to the commissioner to show that a claimant can perform work other than his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7. The record must contain substantial evidence in support of the commissioner's findings regarding the plaintiff's RFC to perform such other work. Rosado v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 294 (1st Cir. 1986).

         I. Discussion

         The record contains four expert opinions bearing on the plaintiff's mental RFC. Based on a February 4, 2013, examination, agency examining consultant Edward Quinn, Ph.D., diagnosed the plaintiff with panic disorder with agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and major depression, recurrent, moderate. See Record at 440. He summarized:

[The plaintiff] should be able to follow work rules. He may have some difficulties at times interacting with others because of anxiety. He did not appear to have difficulties with judgment. He should be able to deal with some stressors. He should be able to function independently. He may have some issues with attention and concentration because of anxiety. Memory appears to be intact. He generally appears capable of completing job tasks. However, in a situation where he is with a group of people he may have increased problems. He may have increased problems with stressful jobs. He may have difficulties with complex job instructions at times. He demonstrates good social skills.

Id. at 439-40.

         In a February 21, 2013, opinion, Dr. Burkhart found that the plaintiff had a severe anxiety disorder impairment and a nonsevere affective disorder impairment. See id. at 60. With the benefit of review of the Quinn opinion, which she indicated she gave great weight, see id. at 61, she concluded that the plaintiff had no limitations in understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence, or adaptation, but did have social interaction limitations, see id. at 62. She deemed him “able to interact with a few coworkers and supervisors, but due to reported anxiety no frequent public contact.” Id. at 62. She explained: “[The plaintiff] goes to the store weekly. He presents with good social skills.” Id.

         In a July 17, 2013, opinion, Dr. Stahl concurred that the plaintiff had a severe anxiety disorder impairment and nonsevere affective disorder impairment. See id. at 81. Like Dr. Burkhart, he indicated that he gave the Quinn opinion great weight. See id. at 83. However, while he found that the plaintiff had no limitations in understanding and memory, he indicated that he had limitations in all other categories of mental functioning. See id. at 83-85. With respect to social functioning, his finding was nearly identical to that of Dr. Burkhart: that the plaintiff was “able to interact with a few coworkers and supervisors, but due to reported anxiety no frequent public contact.” Id. at 84. He explained that the plaintiff “goes to the store” and “presents with good social skills at the CE [consultative examination].” Id.

         Finally, in a February 18, 2015, opinion, treating counselor Bowdich indicated that the plaintiff had no useful ability to function in all but one of 18 work capacities, including the abilities to relate to co-workers and deal with the public. See id. at 874-876.

         In May and June 2014, on referral from Bowdich, the plaintiff underwent a psychological evaluation by Aaron Blanchette, Psy.D. See Id. at 601-10. With the benefit of a clinical interview, review of records, and testing, Dr. Blanchette diagnosed him with chronic PTSD, dysthymic disorder, a brief psychotic disorder, in remission, and schizotypal personality features. See id. at 603, 605.

         Dr. Blanchette described the plaintiff as “a very anxious individual, especially in public or around ...


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