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Robitaille v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

July 20, 2016

Tina Ann Robitaille,
v.
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2016 DNH 121

          ORDER ON APPEAL

          JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Tina Ann Robitaille has appealed the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) denial of her application for Social Security disability benefits. An administrative law judge at the SSA (“ALJ”) ruled that, despite several severe impairments, Robitaille retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and thus is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council twice granted Robitaille’s request for review of prior decisions, see id. § 404.967, each time vacating the ALJ’s decision and remanding for further proceedings. The Appeals Council denied Robitaille’s latest request for review, with the result that the ALJ’s third decision became the final decision on Robitaille’s application, see id. § 404.981. Robitaille then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Robitaille has moved to reverse the decision, see L.R. 9.1(b), contending that the ALJ erred in her analysis of Robitaille’s mental impairments, migraine headaches, and credibility, at steps two and four of her analysis. The Acting Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the ALJ’s decision. See L.R. 9.1(e). After careful consideration, the court grants the Acting Commissioner’s motion to affirm (and denies Robitaille’s motion to reverse) the ALJ’s decision.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         The court limits its review of a final decision of the SSA “to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). The court will uphold the ALJ’s decision if it is supported by “such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). Though the evidence in the record may support multiple conclusions, the court will still uphold the ALJ’s findings “if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support his conclusion.” Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991).

         II. Background[1]

         The ALJ invoked the requisite five-step process in assessing Robitaille’s request for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. After concluding that Robitaille had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period between the alleged onset of her disability on September 22, 2009, and the date she was last insured, December 31, 2012, the ALJ analyzed the severity of Robitaille’s impairments. The ALJ concluded that Robitaille suffers from three severe physical impairments: degenerative disk disease, fibromyalgia, and migraine headaches. Admin R. at 23. After reviewing Robitaille’s treatment records, her own statements, and opinions from several consultants and treating providers, the ALJ concluded that Robitaille’s mental impairments -- adjustment disorder and pain disorder -- caused no more than “mild limitation[s]” on Robitaille’s activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, and pace, and that Robitaille experienced no episodes of decompensation of extended duration, and thus were not severe. See 20 C.F.R. § 1520a; Id. at Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.

         At the third step, the ALJ found that Robitaille’s severe impairments did not meet or “medically equal” the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. She did not consider Robitaille’s alleged mental impairments at that step. The ALJ then concluded that Robitaille retained the RFC to perform unskilled or semi-skilled light work. Finally, finding that Robitaille was unable to perform her past, relevant work as an insurance sales agent, see 20 C.F.R.§ 404.1565, the ALJ continued to step five, where she concluded that Robitaille could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the economy. Therefore, the ALJ found, Robitaille was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         III. Analysis

         Robitaille challenges the ALJ’s analysis on four fronts. First, Robitaille contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate her mental impairments when assessing her RFC. Second, Robitaille argues that the ALJ erred by failing to consider and account for the impact of Robitaille’s migraine headaches, which the ALJ found to be a severe impairment, on her ability to sustain work-related activities. Third, Robitaille maintains that the ALJ erred in evaluating her subjective complaints and credibility. Finally, Robitaille contends that the Acting Commissioner failed to sustain her burden at step five of the process. Addressing each of these in turn, the court concludes that the ALJ did not err in crafting Robitaille’s RFC nor in evaluating her subjective complaints and credibility.

         A. Mental impairments

         Robitaille challenges the ALJ’s conclusion that she does not suffer from a severe mental impairment and that her mental impairments did not impact her RFC. As to the first point, if the ALJ erred in failing to find that Robitaille suffered from severe mental impairments at step two, such error would be harmless, because the ALJ found that Robitaille suffered from other severe impairments and continued to the next step. See McDonough v. S.S.A., 2014 DNH 142, 27 (“[A]n error in describing a given impairment as non-severe is harmless so long as the ALJ found at least one severe impairment and progressed to the next step of the sequential evaluation.”).

         The court therefore proceeds to consider whether the ALJ erred in crafting an RFC that does not appear to account for Robitaille’s alleged mental impairments. In crafting an RFC, the ALJ “must consider limitations and restrictions imposed by all of an individual's impairments, even those that are not ‘severe.’” Stephenson v. Halter, 2001 DNH 154, 4-5. Robitaille contends that the ALJ erred by failing to reflect in her RFC the conclusion that Robitaille had “at least moderate concentration, persistence, or pace difficulties . . . .” Plaintiff’s Mem. (document no. 8) at 4. In support of this argument, Robitaille challenges the ALJ’s treatment of the medical opinion evidence with respect to her mental impairments.

         Both Dr. Tingley, a medical expert who testified at one of the administrative hearings, and Dr. Craig Stenslie, [1] the state agency consultant who reviewed Robitaille’s records, concluded that Robitaille had mild restrictions of activities of daily living and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. Admin R. at 89, 854. Dr. Stenslie also opined that Robitaille had mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning. Id. at 854. An evaluating psychologist, Dr. Janet Levenson, concluded that Robitaille had “mild impulsivity issues that negatively impact accuracy in completing tasks.” Admin. ...


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