United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
Joseph DiClerico Jr. United States District Judge
Stephanie Amaral seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying her application for social security disability benefits after Amaral was awarded supplemental security income. Amaral moves to reverse and remand the decision, contending that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in failing to call a medical expert to determine Amaral’s disability onset date, erred in the weight given to her treating physician’s opinion, erred in evaluating her mental health impairments, and erred in assessing Amaral’s residual functional capacity. The Acting Secretary moves to affirm.
Standard of Review
In reviewing the final decision of the Acting Commissioner in a social security case, the court “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); accord Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001). The court defers to the ALJ’s factual findings as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Astralis Condo. Ass’n v. Sec’y Dep’t of Housing & Urban Dev., 620 F.3d 62, 66 (1st Cir. 2010).
Amaral applied for supplemental security income (“SSI”), under Title XVI, and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), under Title II, on September 9, 2012, when she was fifty-two years old. For purposes of SSI, she was determined to be disabled because of anxiety related disorders and affective/mood disorders beginning on June 1, 2012, but she was not awarded SSI because she had too much income. For purposes of DIB, the agency concluded that she had not been disabled through her last insured date on December 31, 2008.
The administrative record of medical treatment begins in 2004 when Amaral required a physical and mental examination for purposes of her application to be a foster care provider. The results were normal. In June of 2005, Amaral was treated at a hospital emergency department for symptoms she associated with anxiety but a CT scan revealed pulmonary emboli in her lungs. She was admitted to the hospital and was prescribed anticoagulant medication.
Just after she was released from the hospital, on June 13, 2005, Amaral saw her treating physician, Dr. Badman, and reported having difficulty with anxiety. A week later, Amaral told Dr. Badman that she continued to have anxiety but her medication was very beneficial. Ten days later, however, Amaral again experienced breakthrough anxiety and began counselling.
In July of 2005, Dr. Badman explained to Amaral that anxiety medication was not a long-term solution and discussed alternatives. Amaral reported a panic attack to Dr. Badman on July 21, 2005, and he told her to stop the new medication. Through the remainder of 2005, Dr. Badman’s treatment notes show that Amaral was diagnosed with anxiety disorder but that she was doing well on her medication.
The treatment notes in 2006 generally show diagnoses of anxiety disorder and depression. In September, Dr. Badman noted that Amaral’s anxiety was stable. In 2007, Amaral reported during a neurological examination that she had had severe depression and anxiety but also said that her medication had done a good job of taking care of her anxiety. Treatment notes in 2008 are similar and include one report that Amaral felt she was always on the verge of anxiety decompensation.
Two state agency medical experts reviewed Amaral’s records in December of 2012. They found insufficient evidence to assess her condition before December 31, 2008, her last insured date.
In February of 2014, Jeffrey Wagner, Ph.D. conducted a psychological evaluation of Amaral. He completed a Mental Impairment Medical Source Statement in which he assessed panic disorder, agoraphobia, major depression, attention deficit disorder, and generalized anxiety. Dr. Wagner found that Amaral was seriously limited in all mental aptitudes and abilities to do unskilled work. He also found marked limitations in Amaral’s activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, and pace. Dr. Wagner checked a box to show that Amaral’s impairments had existed since September of 2003.
Dr. Badman completed a Physical Impairment Medical Source Statement on February 7, 2014. He indicated diagnoses of anxiety, GERD, TMJ syndrome, lower back pain/degenerative disc disorder, and DVT/pulmonary embolism. Dr. Badman also indicated that Amaral’s limitations had existed since 2005 and would frequently interfere with her attention and concentration. He found that she could not do even a low stress job and was likely to be absent more than four days per month.
In 2012, Amaral stated in her function report that she was overwhelmed by tasks outside of her house and that her panic attacks frequently caused her to seek care. She said that she took care of her children with help from her mother. She also said that she slept little and felt exhausted but that she could take care of ...