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Johnson v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 12, 2015

Cathy Stoumen Johnson,
Commissioner, Social Security Administration. Opinion No. 2015 DNH 051


JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE, District Judge.

Cathy Stoumen Johnson has appealed the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge at the SSA ("ALJ") ruled that, despite Johnson's severe impairments (major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder), 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). The Appeals Council later denied Johnson's request for review, see id. § 404.968(a), with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on Johnson's application, see id. § 404.981. Johnson then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

Johnson has filed a motion to reverse the decision. See L.R. 9.1(b)(1). She argues that, in ruling that she was not disabled, the ALJ improperly discounted the opinions of her treating physicians in favor of those of non-treating sources. As a result, Johnson maintains, the ALJ erroneously found neither that Johnson suffered from a listed impairment-which would have led to a finding that she was disabled without regard to her RFC, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d)-nor that she lacked the RFC to perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, id. at 404.1505(a). The Acting Commissioner of the SSA has crossmoved for an order affirming the ALJ's decision, see L.R. 9.1(d), defending the ALJ's handling of the opinion evidence. As explained fully below, the court agrees with the Commissioner, and therefore grants her motion to affirm (and denies Johnson's motion to reverse) the decision.

Treating source opinions

Johnson claims that the ALJ erred by giving only limited weight to the opinions of three of her treating doctors: Dr. Dominic Candido, her pyschologist; Dr. Adam Schwarz, her primary care physician; and Dr. Danielle Dahle, her psychiatrist. As Johnson points out, an ALJ must give controlling weight to the opinions of a treating physician "[i]f [the ALJ] find[s] that a treating source's opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and the severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [his] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). In declining to give controlling weight to the opinions of Drs. Candido, Dahle, or Schwarz, the ALJ found these opinions "neither consistent with nor supported by the evidence of record, including the treating source's own treatment notes." Johnson argues that this finding lacks substantial evidence to support it as to any of the doctors in question. The court disagrees.

Dr. Candido. As the ALJ noted, Candido opined that Johnson "had severe limitations in attention and concentration" as well as that her "symptoms preclude occupational functioning due to her difficulty with sustained mental effort, novel tasks, and high demands." Candido had expressed these opinions on an "Attending Physician's Statement of Disability" form he had completed for submission to an insurance company in late April 2012. He also indicated on the form that Johnson had "no ability" to do a number of other things, including "perform repetitive or short-cycle work, " "work alone or apart in physical isolation from others, " "perform effectively under stress, " or "deal with people, " as well as "minimal ability to perform a variety of duties[, ] work under specific instructions, or demonstrate reliability and consistency."

In giving Candido's opinions "little weight, " the ALJ pointed out that his "notes show that [Johnson] at times had clear or remarkably clear mental status"-the ALJ elaborated elsewhere in the opinion that "many of Dr. Candido's notes are illegible, but those that are legible reflect clear or remarkably clear mental status, as well as reports of improved mood." The ALJ also observed that, on the very same form on which Candido had indicated his opinions as to Johnson's severe limitations, he had also noted that her "panic was less intense and less frequent, her dissociative states were fewer in number, and her mood was less depressed" (though her "concentration and memory remained problematic"). The ALJ also relied on Johnson's "own report that she can complete simple tasks of two to three steps, " as she stated on the "Function Report" she submitted to the SSA in support of her application.

In attacking the ALJ's handling of Candido's opinions, Johnson complains that "the ALJ indifferently dismisse[d] the treatment notes as illegible, " rather than "[c]ontacting [Candido] and asking for clarification." But Johnson had been represented by counsel for nearly a year by the time of the hearing before the ALJ, so her attorney, by all rights, should have been the one ensuring that the medical records he presented in support of his client's claim were legible. See Faria v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 187 F.3d 621 (table), 1998 WL 1085810, at *1 (1st Cir. Oct. 2, 1998).

Offering her own interpretation of certain of Candido's notes in her motion, Johnson also argues that they in fact contain "frequent notations" at odds with the ALJ's observation that they reflect favorably on her mental status. But, however accurately Johnson may have deciphered the notes, the joint statement of material facts-which Johnson, through counsel, agreed to as "all facts pertinent to the resolution of the case, " L.R. 9.3(d)-contains no support for her interpretation. To the contrary, the statement describes Candido's treatment notes as "largely illegible, " and, aside from describing the note of Johnson's initial visit with Candido as documenting a "report of panic, " says nothing further about them but that they "document treatment approximately bi-weekly to twice weekly."

On this record, the ALJ did not err in finding that what Johnson admits are Candido's "largely illegible" notes failed to support his opinions as to her severe limitations-nor, for that matter, in declining to do what Johnson's counsel, both before the ALJ and on appeal to this court, likewise declined to do.[1] See Carrion v. Colvin, 2014 DNH 174, 7-8.

Johnson also argues that, even though (as just referenced) she "met twice a week with [Candido] dating back to February 2011, " any "[c]onsideration or even mention of this longstanding treatment relationship is missing from the ALJ's analysis" (italicization omitted). It is true that SSA regulations direct an ALJ, in weighing the opinion of a treating source, to consider-among several other factors-the "[l]ength of the treatment relationship and the frequency of the examination." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)(i). As this court has observed, though, § 404.1527(c) "lists factors for the ALJ to consider in deciding how much weight to give any medical opinion, [but] it stops short of requiring an ALJ's decision to expressly apply each of the six relevant factors.'" Chapin v. Astrue, 2012 DNH 177, 9 (quoting Oldham v. Astrue , 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007)). Instead, the rule simply requires the ALJ to "give good reasons in... [his or her] decision for the weight [he or she] gives [a] treating source's opinion." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).

Notwithstanding its omission of any reference to the length or intensity of Candido's treating relationship with Johnson, the ALJ's decision gave the requisite "good reasons" for giving Candido's opinions little weight. In addition to the fact that those opinions found little if any legible support in Candido's records, the ALJ also expressly relied on the conflict, noted supra, between Johnson's statement in the Function Report that she could "complete simple tasks of two to three steps" and Candido's view that Johnson's "severe limitations in attention and concentration" left her with "no ability" to do even "repetitive or short-cycle work." Johnson's motion to reverse does not address this conflict, which the ALJ was free to take into account in evaluating Candido's opinions. See Scanlon v. Astrue, 2013 DNH 088, 17-18 ("[i]n assessing whether a treating source's opinion is consistent with the record, an ALJ is of course free to consider the claimant's contrary statements"). The ALJ's decision to give Candido's opinion little weight was both sufficiently explained and sufficiently supported.

Drs. Dahle and Schwarz. Dahle, a psychiatrist who saw Johnson once in July 2011 and three more times between January and July 2012, completed two forms in July 2012 indicating that, due to her depression and anxiety, she suffered from a number of limitations. Among other things, Dahle opined that, due to her depression, Johnson had "moderate difficulties in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence or pace, " and that due to her anxiety, she faced "moderate restriction of activities of daily living" and "marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning, persistence, or pace."

In August 2012, Schwarz, Johnson's primary care physician, completed the same "Depression" and "Anxiety" questionnaires as Dahle, indicating even more serious findings. Schwarz opined that, due to Johnson's depression, she faced "marked difficulties in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence or pace" and that, due to Johnson's anxiety, she faced "marked ...

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