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Debra Ann Chapin v. Michael J. Astrue

September 28, 2012


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

Opinion No. 2012 DNH 177


Debra Ann Chapin has appealed the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. An administrative law judge at the SSA ("ALJ") ruled that, despite Chapin's severe impairments (including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression), she retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform her past relevant work, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b), as a mail house worker, so she was not disabled, see id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Although this decision was selected for review by the SSA's Decision Review Board, see id. § 405.10(a)(1), it failed to complete its review within the required time period, with the result that the ALJ's decision became the SSA's final decision on Chapin's application, see id. § 405.420(a)(2). Chapin then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security appeals).

Chapin has filed a motion to reverse the decision. See L.R. 9.1(b)(1). She argues that the ALJ, in concluding that Chapin had the RFC to perform her past relevant work, erroneously gave more weight to the opinion of a consulting expert who did not treat her than to the opinions of other medical sources, including some of her treating physicians. The Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. See L.R. 9.1(d). He argues that the ALJ properly gave limited weight to the opinions of Chapin's treating physicians because they were "inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [her] case record," and supportably found that those opinions (as well as those of other medical professionals who did not treat her) were less persuasive than the opinions of the consulting experts according to the applicable criteria. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).*fn1

In making disability determinations, the SSA generally "give[s] more weight to opinions from [the applicant's] treating sources, since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [the applicant's] medical impairment(s)." Id. If the SSA "find[s] that a treating source's opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of [the applicant's] impairment[s] is well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record, [the SSA] will give it controlling weight." Id. Even if, applying these criteria, a medical source's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, the SSA must still apply a series of specified factors in deciding what weight to give it. See id. These factors include:

(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination;

(2) the nature and the extent of the treatment relationship;

(3) the relevant evidence that the treating source provides to support the opinion;

(4) the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole;

(5) whether the opinion is from a source who specializes in medical issues related to the opinion; and

(6) any other factors tending to support or contradict the opinion.

Id. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(6).

Chapin argues that the ALJ misapplied these rules in giving only limited weight to the opinions of four medical professionals: two psychiatrists, Abby Reinick and Ekaterina Hurst; a psychologist, Tracey Allyson; and a therapist, Melissa Perrino. In fact, as the Commissioner points out, the ALJ expressly found that each of these opinions was inconsistent with other record evidence--which, in each case, he identified--so that the opinion did not merit controlling weight, even if it came from a treating medical source. The ALJ also properly considered the applicable factors in assigning weight to the opinions of certain medical sources over others insofar as they bore upon Chapin's residual functional capacity.

Reinick, Hurst, and Perrino are providers who saw Chapin at West Central Behavioral Health Center, a community mental health clinic, beginning in spring 2009 and continuing into 2010. The ALJ gave only "limited weight" to "[t]he opinions from the providers at West Central Behavioral Health," including Dr. Reinick's opinion that Chapin was unable to work due to her psychiatric conditions and Perrino's opinion that Chapin was moderately limited in understanding and remembering short and simple instructions, maintaining concentration and attention for extended periods, and asking simple questions and requesting assistance. The ALJ explained that these opinions were "not entirely consistent with the evidence of record," including ...

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