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McQuaid v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

November 2, 2015

Sarah McQuaid
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration

Peter K. Marsh, Esq.

Robert J. Rabuck, Esq.



Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Sarah McQuaid moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner’s decision to deny her applications for Social Security disability insurance benefits, or DIB, under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423, and for supplemental security income, or SSI, under Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1382. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming her decision. For the reasons that follow, this matter is remanded to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this order.

I. Standard of Review

The applicable standard of review in this case provides, in pertinent part:

The [district] court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .

42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (setting out the standard of review for DIB decisions); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (establishing § 405(g) as the standard of review for SSI decisions). However, the court “must uphold a denial of social security . . . benefits unless ‘the [Acting Commissioner] has committed a legal or factual error in evaluating a particular claim.’” Manso-Pizarro v. Sec’y of HHS, 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (quoting Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 885 (1989)).

As for the statutory requirement that the Acting Commissioner’s findings of fact be supported by substantial evidence, “[t]he substantial evidence test applies not only to findings of basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from such facts.” Alexandrou v. Sullivan, 764 F.Supp. 916, 917-18 (S.D.N.Y. 1991) (citing Levine v. Gardner, 360 F.2d 727, 730 (2d Cir. 1966)). In turn, “[s]ubstantial evidence is ‘more than [a] mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Currier v. Sec’y of HEW, 612 F.2d 594, 597 (1st Cir. 1980) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). But, “[i]t is the responsibility of the [Acting Commissioner] to determine issues of credibility and to draw inferences from the record evidence. Indeed, the resolution of conflicts in the evidence is for the [Acting Commissioner], not the courts.” Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y of HHS, 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (per curiam) (citations omitted). Moreover, the court “must uphold the [Acting Commissioner’s] conclusion, even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence.” Tsarelka v. Sec’y of HHS, 842 F.2d 529, 535 (1st Cir. 1988) (per curiam). Finally, when determining whether a decision of the Acting Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, the court must “review[] the evidence in the record as a whole.” Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769 (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec’y of HHS, 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)).

II. Background

The parties have submitted a Joint Statement of Material Facts, document no. 8. That statement is part of the court’s record and will be summarized here, rather than repeated in full.

McQuaid has been diagnosed with anxiety and has been treated for both anxiety and depression. For those conditions, her primary care physician, Dr. Melissa Hanrahan, has prescribed Paxil, [1] Celexa, [2] Valium, [3] Klonopin, [4] Prozac, [5] Xanax, [6] Abilify, [7]Trazadone, [8] Wellbutrin, [9] and Amitriptyline.[10] McQuaid was diagnosed with abdominal pain in December of 2009. See Administrative Transcript (hereinafter “Tr.”) 283. In 2010, she applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income.

As a result of her application, McQuaid was seen by Dr. Rexford Burnette for a consultative psychological examination. He prepared a Mental Health Evaluation Report in which he made diagnoses of major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse in sustained full remission, and cannabis abuse in sustained full remission. As a part of his mental status examination, Dr. Burnette made the following observation concerning McQuaid’s mood:

This claimant was moderately anxious during this session but her depressive symptoms were not overtly apparent (and she acknowledges that her Prozac prescription has been very helpful in managing her depression).

Tr. 345.

When asked to give an opinion on McQuaid’s abilities to perform activities of daily living, Dr. Burnette referred to a description of her present daily activities that includes the following:

She spends most of her time at home and dreads going anywhere. She does drive but tries to avoid it whenever possible. . . . She occasionally attends appointments with her PCP. She drove to this session unaccompanied but said she only tried it because it is so close to her home and she knew the area well. . . . She rarely shops and prefers to be accompanied whenever she does. . . . This claimant performs housework and food preparation, and she attends to her hygiene and grooming appropriately.

Tr. 346. When asked for his opinion on McQuaid’s abilities in the area of social functioning, Dr. Burnette stated, in part:

This claimant has few social contacts. . . . She has a routine therapeutic relationship with her PCP which is apparently long-standing. She has few, if any, friends and attends no social or religious activities. She was able to establish effective interpersonal rapport with this examiner and she expressed her thoughts and feelings well, but she remained anxious throughout the session. Last year . . . she had worked for “a month or so” as a waitress . . . leaving because of “the driving” and “dealing with the people” . . . . She said that she was always well-liked in her job but she felt increasingly anxious and unable to deal with people and the public.

Tr. 347. When asked for his opinion on McQuaid’s abilities to understand and remember instructions, Dr. Burnette stated that those abilities were “[n]ot significantly limited at this time.” Id. When asked for his opinion on McQuaid’s abilities in the areas of concentration and task completion, Dr. Burnette wrote: “Ms. McQuaid describes persistent and generalized anxiety throughout the day. This anxiety reportedly interferes with her ability to focus on tasks and complete complex projects.” Id. When asked for his opinion on McQuaid’s abilities in the areas of reacting to stress and adapting to work or work-like situations, Dr. Burnette wrote:

In her last job, this claimant’s growing anxiety about dealing with people and the public was a major contributor to her leaving her profession as a waitress. However, she apparently performed her job effectively for years.

Tr. 348. Finally, Dr. Burnette made the following prognosis:

Ms. McQuaid is compliant with her prescription psychiatric medications. She did not express any particular interest in engaging in formal psychological counseling - partly related to her anxiety about driving to sessions and establishing a therapeutic relationship. However, competent mental health treatment may help ameliorate her anxiety symptoms more effectively than expecting her PCP ...

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