United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
Anna C. Duguay
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2014 DNH 207.
JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE, District Judge.
Anna C. Duguay has appealed the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") denial of her applications for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income, which claimed an onset date of March 2011. An administrative law judge at the SSA ("ALJ") ruled that, despite Duguay's severe impairments (i.e., anxiety disorder/post-traumatic stress disorder and "minor motor seizures"), she 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 Duguay'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 Duguay's application, see id. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. She appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).
Duguay has filed a motion to reverse the decision. See L.R. 9.1(b). She argues that the ALJ erred by (1) misidentifying her severe impairments, (2) failing to find that she suffered from an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment, specifically, anxiety disorder, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, subp. P, app. 1, pt. A, ¶ 12.06, which would have made an analysis of her RFC unnecessary, id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d), and (3) giving substantial weight to the assessment of a consulting psychologist, while giving only limited weight to the assessment of Duguay's treating psychiatrist. The Commissioner of the SSA has filed a motion to affirm the decision, see L.R. 9.1(e), arguing that these findings were supported by substantial evidence, see Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). For the reasons explained below, this court denies Duguay's motion and grants the Commissioner's.
Severe impairments. As noted at the outset, the ALJ found that Duguay suffered from severe impairments, to wit, "anxiety disorder/post-tramautic stress disorder" and "minor motor seizures." Duguay argues that this was in error because "[t]he medical record does not document that the claimant was diagnosed with minor motor seizures' at all" but, rather, episodes of syncope, i.e., fainting, caused by her PTSD and anxiety. It should be noted that syncope and seizures are often confused, see, e.g., Merck Manual of Diagnosis & Therapy 586 (Mark H. Beers, ed., 18th ed. 2006), but, in any event, the ALJ's confusion in terminology on this point made no difference. Duguay does not claim that syncope, as such, is itself a severe impairment in addition to her PTSD and anxiety, but rather that it is a symptom of her PTSD and anxiety disorder-which are among the impairments the ALJ found Duguay to have. It is hard to imagine how this court could reverse an ALJ's decision because the ALF found the claimant to have too many severe impairments.
Indeed, an ALJ's decision should not be reversed even for finding the claimant to have too few severe impairments, unless the lack of any severe impairment was the reason for the ultimate finding that the claimant was not disabled. See Syms v. Astrue , 2011 DNH 138, 3-4 (DiClerico, J.) (collecting cases). This is so because, once an ALJ identifies one severe impairment, he "must consider the limiting effects of all [the impairments], even those that are not severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e); see also id. § 416.923. While Duguay suggests that the ALJ in fact failed to consider the limiting effects of her syncope in the balance of analysis, that is belied by the decision itself, which, as the Commissioner points out, repeatedly refers to Duguay's syncope. The ALJ's mistake in identifying that condition as "minor motor seizures" in listing Duguay's severe impairments, then, cannot support her motion to reverse his decision. See, e.g., Santiago v. Astrue, 2013 DNH 048, 5.
Listed impairment. Duguay claims that the ALJ erred in finding that she did not meet the criteria for a listed impairment, namely, anxiety disorder, under 20 C.F.R. § 404, subp. P, app. 1, pt. A, ¶ 12.06. The ALJ explained that he had considered not only that listing, but also those for epilepsy, see id. ¶ 11.03, and affective disorders, see id. ¶ 12.06, but found that Duguay "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals" any of those listings. Duguay claims that the ALJ made a number of errors in coming to that conclusion. The court disagrees.
Duguay argues that, "perhaps most importantly" (emphasis omitted), the ALJ mistakenly relied on the fact that Duguay's "representative did not argue at the hearing that the claimant's impairments met any listing." But as the Commissioner points out-and the ALJ noted in the next sentence of his decision-the claimant indeed has the burden of proving that her impairment meets a listed impairment. Sullivan v. Zebley , 493 U.S. 521, 530-31 (1990). Duguay acknowledges this point of law, but argues that it does not relieve the ALJ of his responsibility to "provide some analysis of [the] medical evidence in making [his] listing determination." The ALJ did that here, however.
To meet the listing for an anxiety disorder, a claimant must have certain symptoms that result in either:
two or more of the following: marked restrictions of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of an extended duration (the "paragraph B criteria"); or
complete inability to function independently outside the area of one's home (the "paragraph C criteria").
20 C.F.R. § 404, subp. P, app. 1, pt. A, ¶ 12.06. The ALJ found that Duguay did not meet any of the paragraph B criteria because she had only mild restrictions in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in social functioning; mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; and no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. The ALJ also found that Duguay failed to meet the paragraph C criteria in that there was no evidence of her complete inability to function independently outside the area of her home.
In finding that Duguay did not meet any of the listings that were considered, the ALJ specifically noted that he had "considered the reports of [Duguay's] treating physicians as well as the opinions of the State Agency medical consultants who evaluated this issue... and reached a similar conclusion." As discussed in more detail infra, one of those consultants was Edward Martin, Ph.D, who found that Duguay had no more than moderate limitations in any of the areas tested by paragraph B criteria, and that she also did not meet the paragraph C criteria, of the anxiety disorder listing. This was sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's identical findings. See Gaudette ex rel. D.P. v. Colvin, 2014 DNH 022, 3-4. Contrary to Duguay's claim, then, the ALJ did not fail to "reveal the conflicting medical evidence that he relied upon in the record to decide [Duguay] did not meet the mental impairment listings."
As further support for his conclusions that Duguay did not meet the criteria for a listed anxiety disorder, the ALJ relied on a "function report" that Duguay had submitted to the SSA. Duguay claims that, in so doing, the ALJ "mis-stated" the report insofar as he found that it showed that Duguay (1) "lives in a house with family without any noted special accommodations and services, " (2) did not "report limitations in her physical functioning, " and (3) "reports regular interactions with friends, on the phone, by texting or in person." These observations are accurate despite Duguay's quibbling that (1) she "was not asked" on the form "about any special accommodations, " (2) she reported, on the form, limitations on her emotional functioning due to her PTSD, and (3) in reporting that she "spen[t] time with others, " she answered further ...