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Comeau v. Colvin

United States District Court, First Circuit

November 1, 2013

Kenneth M. Comeau,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration. Opinion No. 2013 DNH 145


JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE, District Judge.

Kenneth M. Comeau has appealed the Social Security Administration's denial of his applications for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). An administrative law judge at the SSA ("ALJ") ruled that, despite Comeau's severe impairments (including major depressive disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder), he retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and, as a result, is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council later denied Comeau's request for review of the ALJ's decision, see id. §§ 404.968(a), 416.1479, so the ALJ's decision became the SSA's final decision on Comeau's application, see id. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Comeau appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

Comeau has filed a motion to reverse the decision. See L.R. 9.1(b)(1). He argues that the ALJ made three errors: (1) giving great weight to the opinions of a state agency psychologist who had never treated Comeau, while giving little weight to the opinions of a psychiatrist who had, (2) finding that Comeau's complaints of his symptoms were not fully credible, and (3) due to those errors, asking a vocational expert ("VE") to opine as to Comeau's employability based on a mistaken view of his ability to interact with other people.

The Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. See L.R. 9.1(d). The Commissioner argues that: (1) the ALJ supportably chose to credit the relevant opinions of the state agency pyschologist, rather than the treating psychiatrist, (2) the ALJ also supportably chose not to fully credit Comeau's relevant complaints, and (3) as a result, the ALJ's hypothetical question to the VE expressed a supportable view of Comeau's ability to interact with others. As explained fully below, the court agrees with the Commissioner, and therefore grants his motion to affirm (and denies Comeau's motion to reverse) the ALJ's decision.

I. Applicable legal standard

"Judicial review of a Social Security claim is limited to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence." Ward v. Comm'r of Social Security , 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000) (citing Nguyen v. Chater , 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999)). If the ALJ's factual findings were supported by "substantial evidence, " they are "conclusive, " even if the court disagrees with the ALJ, and even if other evidence supports a contrary conclusion. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also, e.g., Nguyen , 172 F.3d at 35. Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Becker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 895 F.2d 34, 36 (1st Cir. 1990) (quoting Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

That standard is not, however, "merely [a] rubber stamp [of] the ALJ's decision." Scott v. Barnhart , 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (quotation and bracketing omitted). If the ALJ's decision was based on "a legal or factual error, " or otherwise unsupported by substantial evidence, then it must be reversed and remanded under § 405(g). Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996); see also, e.g., Johnson, 597 F.3d at 411; Nguyen , 172 F.3d at 35 (noting that an ALJ's findings are not conclusive where they are "derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts").

II. Background

Comeau, who was 30 years old at the outset of his claimed disability, lives in his mother's house with four of his children under the age of 15 (a fifth child lives with that child's mother). Comeau's mother normally takes care of the household chores, as well as getting the children off to school in the morning. Comeau also makes no payment toward the household expenses. He has held five different jobs in his life, one of them for 18 months and the others for less than a year each. In August 2009, he was fired from his last job, as a picker in a warehouse, after five months.

In April 2010, Comeau was hospitalized for several days after suffering respiratory failure due to an asthma attack and becoming unresponsive. In a visit to his primary care doctor two months or so later, Comeau reported feeling "some emotional fallout" from the hospitalization. Comeau also announced that he was applying for disability benefits due to his severe asthma. After retaining counsel, Comeau in fact filed an application with the SSA in June 2010, seeking both disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Comeau claimed to have been disabled as of August 3, 2009, the last time he worked.

For purposes of his application, Comeau underwent a comprehensive psychological examination, conducted in September 2010 by Dr. Lawrence Jasper. Jasper diagnosed Comeau with posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), as well as amnestic disorder due to his recent episode of respiratory failure. So far as the record indicates, Comeau had no prior history of any mental or psychological problems. In relevant part, Jasper opined that Comeau was unable to "interact appropriately and communicate effectively" with "friends, landlord [ sic ], fellow employees or supervisors, " but capable of doing so with "family members and neighbors." Jasper cautioned, however, that Comeau was "highly disengaged at this time, so that behavioral ratings are difficult."

A pyschiatrist for the State of New Hampshire, Dr. Laura Landerman, later assessed Comeau's mental impairments by reviewing his medical records for the period beginning in February 2010 (two months or so before his hospitalization) and ending in September 2010, after his examination by Jasper. Landerman concluded, in relevant part, that Comeau suffered from moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, and carrying out detailed instructions, as well as in completing a normal work week without interruptions and performing at a consistent pace without unreasonable periods of rest, and in responding appropriately to changes in the work setting. Landerman also opined, however, that Comeau was "not significantly limited" in any other category of understanding and memory, concentration and persistence, adaptation or social interaction-including the ability to "interact appropriately with the general public, " "ask simple questions or request assistance, " "accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, " and "get along with coworkers or peers."

In October 2010, the SSA informed Comeau that it had denied his application, deeming him "capable of full time work with environmental limitations... due to [his] asthma, " noting that he "retain[ed] the ability to remember locations and work-like procedures, maintain attention and concentrate for extended periods of time, " as well as "to maintain a schedule and accommodate to changes in a work setting." Through counsel, Comeau sought a hearing on his application before an ALJ.

Comeau subsequently visited the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, where he underwent an initial assessment by Rachel Mong, a clinician, on December 10, 2010. Mong observed that Comeau "displayed anxiety and depression, " but that his "intellectual functioning was average, and he was fully oriented with good memory, adequate insight, and adequate judgment." Comeau went on to attend monthly therapy sessions with Mong from December 2010 through February 2011. During these sessions, Comeau reported increased symptoms of anxiety, including mood swings, interrupted sleep, and nightmares.

Dr. Phillip Santora, a psychiatrist at the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, completed a psychiatric evaluation of Comeau in March 2011. Comeau reported nightmares and flashbacks of his episode of respiratory failure, as well as panic attacks, and presented with a depressed and anxious mood and affect. Santora observed, however, that Comeau's "thinking process was clear and coherent; his immediate, recent, and past memory were reasonably good...; his attention span was fair; and his insight and judgment were fair and at times good." Santora diagnosed Comeau with major depressive order, PTSD, and panic disorder, and prescribed anti-depressant and anti-anxiety ...

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