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Geoffrion v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

November 26, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant


          John H. Rich III United States Magistrate Judge.

         This Social Security Disability (“SSD”) appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) supportably found the plaintiff capable, as of December 31, 2006, her date last insured for SSD benefits, of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The plaintiff seeks remand on the bases that the ALJ ignored a treating physician's opinion in finding that she had no severe physical impairment as of her date last insured and assessed a mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) unsupported by substantial evidence after rejecting the opinion of her treating psychiatrist and ignoring the opinion of her treating therapist. See Plaintiff's Itemized Statement of Errors (“Statement of Errors”) (ECF No. 11) at 3-13. I agree that remand is warranted on the basis of the ALJ's error in assessing the plaintiff's mental RFC. Accordingly, I recommend that the court vacate the commissioner's decision and remand this case for further proceedings consistent herewith.

         Pursuant to the commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Goodermote v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982), the ALJ found, in relevant part, that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2006, Finding 1, Record at 16; that, through her date last insured, she had a severe impairment of affective disorder, Finding 3, id.; that, through her date last insured, she had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional limitations: she was able to maintain concentration and attention sufficient to perform uncomplicated work tasks over an eight-hour workday, assuming short work breaks on average every two hours, was able to interact with the public on an occasional basis, provided the interaction did not require more than an exchange of non-personal work-related information or a hand-off of products or materials, could work in the presence of co-workers and engage in appropriate occasional interaction but could not work in the context of a work team where work-related interaction with co-workers would have been frequent or continuous, and could deal appropriately with supervisors on an occasional basis, but not where monitoring and intervention by supervisors would have been physically close and/or frequent or continuous, Finding 5, id. at 19; that, considering her age (42 years old, defined as a younger individual, on her date last insured), education (at least high school), work experience (transferability of skills immaterial), and RFC, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that she could have performed, Findings 7-10, id. at 27; and that she, therefore, had not been disabled at any time from August 11, 2006, her alleged onset date of disability, through December 31, 2006, her date last insured for SSD benefits, Finding 11, id. at 28. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 3-5, making the decision the final determination of the commissioner, 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Dupuis v. Sec'y 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. Sec'y 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. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

         The ALJ 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 her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 294 (1st Cir. 1986).

         I. Discussion

         The record before the ALJ contained sharply conflicting opinions as to the severity and effects of the plaintiff's mental impairments as of her date last insured for SSD benefits, December 31, 2006. Two agency nonexamining consultants deemed her affective and anxiety-related disorders nonsevere as of her date last insured. See Record at 85-86 (January 2, 2014, opinion of Lewis F. Lester, Ph.D.), 94-95 (July 17, 2014, opinion of Thomas Knox, Ph.D.). By contrast, the plaintiff's longtime treating psychiatrist, Michael R. Patnaude, D.O., and her treating counselor, Holly Briggs, LCPC-C, completed Mental Residual Functional Capacity (“MRFC”) Questionnaires on May 5, 2014, and June 13, 2014, respectively, assessing a number of marked limitations in her mental capacity to perform even unskilled work. See id. at 679-88.

         Dr. Patnaude, for example, indicated that the plaintiff was unable to meet competitive standards in her ability to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, while Briggs indicated that she had no useful ability to accomplish that task. See id. at 681, 686. Both Dr. Patnaude and Briggs indicated that their responses to the MRFC Questionnaire reflected their professional opinions as to the plaintiff's limitations since August 11, 2006. See id. at 683, 688.

         Dr. Patnaude supplemented his opinion with an undated letter to the plaintiff's attorney, received by the commissioner on August 24, 2015, summarizing his history of treatment of the plaintiff and expressing the opinion that, prior to her date last insured, the plaintiff was not capable of working. See id. at 696-99 (stating, inter alia, that, following plaintiff's psychiatric hospitalization in 2006, “my goal has been to try to keep her sufficiently stable that she could remain in the community and not return to the hospital[, ]” “[w]hile I have occasionally hoped that we might reach a point where she could return to full time work, we have never reached a point where that was a realistic goal[, ]” and the plaintiff “has been very emotionally decompensated most of the time”).

         The ALJ rejected both the Patnaude opinion that the plaintiff had disabling limitations as of her date last insured and those of Drs. Lester and Knox that she had no severe mental impairment as of that date. See id. at 25-27. He ignored the Briggs opinion. See id. at 16-27. He then assessed the mental RFC at issue. See Finding 5, id. at 19. He found, based on testimony of a vocational expert present at the plaintiff's hearing, that a person with the posited mental RFC could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See id. at 28, 66-68.

         The plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error in (i) rejecting the Patnaude opinion without good reason, (ii) ignoring the Briggs opinion, and (iii) “formulat[ing] his own unsupported lay assessment of the medical evidence to create a mental RFC.” Statement of Errors at 7-12 (citing Staples v. Berryhill, No. 1:16-cv-00091-GZS, 2017 WL 1011426 (D. Me. Mar. 15, 2017) (rec. dec., aff'd Mar. 30, 2017)).

         The commissioner rejoins that, while “the ALJ did not rely on a medical opinion from a State agency consultant before assessing Plaintiff's RFC, . . . he explained why he assessed specific limitations that he did.” Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (“Opposition”) (ECF No. 15) at 12. She adds that any error was harmless because, once the ALJ supplied good reasons for rejecting the Patnaude opinion, he went on to assess a mental RFC more favorable than the evidence otherwise supported. See Id. (citing Gonsalves v. Astrue, Civil No. 09-181-BW, 2010 WL 1935753, at *6 (D. Me. May 10, 2010) (rec. dec., aff'd June 16, 2010)).

         Even assuming, arguendo, that the ALJ supplied the requisite good reasons for rejecting the Patnaude opinion and made reasonably clear that, had he addressed the Briggs opinion, he would have rejected it for the same reasons, I agree with the plaintiff that he erred in crafting a mental RFC determination without sufficient explanation and that was not more favorable than the evidence otherwise supported.

         First, the ALJ did not explain why he assessed the mental limitations at issue. He only generally explained that, while the record did not reveal that the plaintiff had suffered debilitating depression, “[t]hose limitations that are supported by objective treatment records from that period have been incorporated into her [RFC] at finding #5, above.” Record at 26. He also stated, in the context of determining at Step 2 that the plaintiff had no more than moderate limitations in social functioning, that he had taken her allegations of irritability into consideration in formulating her RFC. See id. at 17. Yet, he never explained how he derived any specific limitations from the objective treatment records or the plaintiff's testimony. See id. at 17-27; see also, e.g., Caudle v. Colvin, No. 1:15-cv-201-JHR, 2016 WL 1734074, at *6 (D. Me. Apr. 29, 2016) (“commissioner's argument that [ALJ] permissibly assessed claimant's mental RFC as of a remote date last insured might have proved persuasive had [he] clarified how [he] derived the specific components of her RFC from disparate sources, including portions of a mental status examination report, but [he] did not”) (citation and internal punctuation omitted); compare, e.g., Starrett v. Colvin, No. 2:14-cv-152-JHR, 2015 WL 3966127, at *4 (D. Me. June 29, 2015) (ALJ did not ...

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