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Carl E. Gaudreault v. Michael J. Astrue

June 18, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joseph N. Laplante United States District Judge

Opinion No. 2012 DNH 108


This is an appeal from the denial of plaintiff Carl E. Gaudreault's application for Social Security benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The administrative law judge ("ALJ") found that Gaudreault, though suffering from depression, was not disabled because his depression did not significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).

Gaudreault has moved for an order reversing that decision, see L.R. 9.1(b)(1), arguing that the ALJ failed to fully develop the administrative record, and, due in part to this failure, incorrectly concluded that Gaudreault's mental health impairments were not severe.*fn1 The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") has cross-moved for an order affirming that decision, see L.R. 9.1(d), arguing that the ALJ fulfilled his duty to develop the record and that his findings are supported by substantial evidence. This court has subject-matter jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security). After reviewing the administrative record, the parties' joint statement of material facts, and their respective memoranda, the court concludes that, even though the ALJ's finding that Gaudreault's depression was not severe was supported by substantial evidence in the record before him, the ALJ did not adequately develop that record as he was required to do. See, e.g., Heggarty v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 990, 997 (1st Cir. 1991). Because remand to the ALJ is necessary for this purpose, the court grants Gaudreault's motion and denies the Commissioner's motion.

I. Applicable legal standard

This court's review under § 405(g) is "limited to determining whether the ALJ deployed the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence." Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999). The ALJ is responsible for determining issues of credibility, resolving conflicting evidence, and drawing inferences from the evidence in the record. See Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981). If the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record, i.e., "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion," Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted), they are conclusive, even if the court does not agree with the ALJ's decision and other evidence supports a contrary conclusion. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Tsarelka v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 842 F.2d 529, 535 (1st Cir. 1988). The ALJ's findings are not conclusive, however, if they were "derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts." Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35. If the ALJ made a legal or factual error, the decision may be reversed and remanded to consider new, material evidence, or to apply the correct legal standard. Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. Background

Pursuant to this court's local rules, the parties filed a Joint Statement of Material Facts (document no. 14), which is part of the record reviewed by the court. See LR 9.1(d). This court will briefly recount the key facts and otherwise incorporates the parties' joint statement by reference.

Gaudreault filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in October 2007, claiming he became disabled in June 1998 due to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep problems, and back problems. Admin. R. at 155, 160. Gaudreault, who was 36 years old at the date of filing, reported that he had "a horrible sleeping pattern," "panic attacks," "high anxiety around people," "lack of self ambition," and "low self esteem." Id. at 160, 173. He further stated that he was experiencing "high depression, stress, and anger." Id. at 171. Neither these symptoms nor his pain were remedied by medication, according to Gaudreault. Id. at 172. Gaudreault also reported that he had worked at four jobs since becoming disabled, and that he had left each of those jobs within two months due to his medical conditions. Id. at 143-44, 151, 153.

The SSA initially denied Gaudreault's applications on March 18, 2008. Id. at 67-68. Gaudreault appealed that decision to the ALJ. See generally 20 C.F.R. § 405.301 et seq. A hearing before the ALJ was initially scheduled for April 12, 2010, but was later rescheduled to July 21, 2010 after Gaudreault requested a postponement in order to obtain counsel. See Admin. R. at 37, 42. The July 21, 2010 hearing was also rescheduled at Gaudreault's request so he could obtain counsel, this time to September 13, 2010. See id. at 37-38. In agreeing to the second postponement, the ALJ advised Gaudreault that no further postponements would be granted. Id. at 38.

Gaudreault was finally able to retain an attorney on September 3, 2010. On September 9, 2010, Gaudreault's attorney requested that the hearing be postponed another two months so that the record could be adequately developed, or, in the alternative, that the record be kept open for 60 days after the hearing to allow additional time for development. Id. at 119-20. At the time, the record contained no medical records before January 8, 2003 (despite Gaudreault's claimed onset date of June 1998) or after January 20, 2009. The ALJ denied the request for postponement, and the hearing proceeded as scheduled. At the hearing, Gaudreault's attorney repeated his request that the ALJ keep the record open for an additional 60 days. Id. at 43-44, 50. The ALJ ultimately denied that request as well, stating that "[t]he possibility of finding records of alleged events occurring 10 to 21 years prior to the alleged onset date is not sufficient cause to further extend decision on the claim." Id. at 15.

At the hearing, Gaudreault testified that he had "a lot of anxiety being around people," and that he was not "able to achieve the kind of things that they ask me to do, and the manner they ask me to do them." Id. at 51-52. He stated that he became "stressed and overwhelmed, and it interferes with the quality of work that they want, which it's depressing, and it gives me a heightened anxiety." Id. at 52. He felt stress and anxiety daily, id. at 56, and "[a]t least once a week" he experienced stress when he became "overwhelmed by a lot of duties" or when somebody criticized or yelled at him. Id. at 54-55. When around people, Gaudreault became "very agitated." Id. at 55. He also sometimes became "very stressed," "argumentative," and "explosive." Id. Gaudreault also testified that he tried to remove himself from stressful situations "rather than blowing up and having a bad altercation." Id. at 54.

Gaudreault also stated that he could not "be in like one place doing the same thing for many hours," because that caused him anxiety. Id. at 56. He stated that he could not "concentrate for any period of time on anything," and that to do so made him "agitated, aggravated." Id. at 57. According to Gaudreault, he'd had these problems "[a]lmost all" his life, at least "since [he] was a young teenager." Id.

Seven days after the hearing, on September 20, 2010, the ALJ issued an order concluding that Gaudreault did "not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months." Id. at 17. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ found that the records Gaudreault had submitted "do not indicate that his medically determinable impairments cause more than a minimal effect on his ability to perform basic physical and mental work activities." Id. at 18. As to Gaudreault's mental health impairments, the ALJ noted that the evidence did not "suggest that [Gaudreault] suffered from anxiety or depression at a severe level." Id. at 19. In particular, the ALJ gave great weight to the opinions of two medical consultants, one of whom opined that Gaudreault's limitations were mild, see id. at ...

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