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Lindstrom v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

January 30, 2017

Sandra Lindstrom
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration No. 2017 DNH 019



         Sandra Lindstrom 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 disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423. Lindstrom contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding that she did not have a medically determinable severe impairment due to multiple chemical sensitivity (“MCS”) before her date last insured. The Acting Commissioner 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); see also Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 34 (1st Cir. 2016). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Castillo Condo. Ass’n v. U.S. Dep’t of Housing & Urban Dev., 821 F.3d 92, 97 (1st Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). “[S]ubstantial evidence does not mean either uncontradicted evidence or overwhelming evidence” but instead can be satisfied “even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).


         Lindstrom applied for social security disability benefits in 2009, alleging that her disability began on October 15, 1990.[1]After her application was denied, a hearing was held before an ALJ in December. The ALJ issued a decision denying Lindstrom’s claim on February 4, 2011. Lindstrom appealed the unfavorable decision, and the United States District Court in the District of Vermont reversed and remanded for further proceedings.[2]

         On direction from the Appeals Council, a new hearing was held on October 14, 2015, before the same ALJ who held the first hearing. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on December 22, 2015, and Lindstrom sought judicial review of that decision.

         Lindstrom was thirty years old in 1990. She has a college degree and has worked as a sales clerk, waitress, file clerk, recreational aid, maintenance worker, supervisor of a group home, and park foreman. She stopped working in 1990 when she was pregnant because she was having minor reactions to chemicals in the environment, and she was concerned about the impact of her reactions on her unborn child. After her son was born, she stayed at home to care for him. Lindstrom’s last insured date was December 31, 1995.

         Lindstrom was evaluated in April and June of 1982 because of allergic reactions. She provided a detailed history of her reactions to materials and environments beginning in 1979. She remembered having severe skin reactions in 1979 and 1982 but follow-up pulmonary testing was normal and a dermatologist found no reason to pursue patch tests.

         Dr. John Balmes concluded that Lindstrom had developed severe allergic reactions in the past, that she did not have asthma, that she had sensitivity to substances in new clothes, and that her reactions could be due to those substances and anxiety. Lindstrom’s obstetric record in 1991 notes that she was severely allergic to chemicals.

         Michael Schaffer, Lindstrom’s chiropractor, wrote a letter in 2009 that he had first treated Lindstrom in 1993. Schaffer noted that Lindstrom was intensely sensitive to chemicals, including fumes from his office copy machine, new carpet, and perfumes worn by others in his office. Lindstrom’s employer from 1982 to 1990 also wrote a letter that said Lindstrom struggled with chemical allergies, which caused her to miss work and eventually to stop working.

         Medical notes in 1998 mentioned Lindstrom’s chemical sensitivities. Notes from the Shepard of Hope Clinic in 2002 stated that Lindstrom had an extreme allergy to new carpet but do not indicate any treatment being provided for her allergy. Treatment notes in 2006 mentioned her many chemical sensitivities but do not indicate treatment. Lindstrom was tested for allergies in August of 2008, which showed strong reactivity to polysorbate 60, fluride, indocine, penicillin, and sulfamethosozole, along with moderate and mild reactions to certain other substances.[3]

         In September of 2009, Nurse Practitioner April Brumson, from the Soujourns Community Health Clinic, noted that Lindstrom had headaches because of multiple chemical sensitivities and that her sensitivities also caused anaphylaxis, compromised immunity, poor concentration, and an inability to process information. Brumsom thought the cognitive changes were more disabling than headaches, that avoiding triggers was the best treatment, and that her reactions were worsening over time. Brumsom’s opinion was reviewed and approved by Dr. Gary Clay.

         Dr. N. Thomas LaCava of Francis Hollistic Medical Center wrote in October of 2009 that Lindstrom had chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue, food allergies, thyroiditis with hypothyroidism, and a history of anaphylaxis. Her treatment involved avoiding chemicals that triggered a reaction, and her prognosis was chronic, permanent, and unremittent. For that reason, Dr. LaCava thought Lindstrom would always be absent from work.

         Lindstrom also obtained an opinion letter in October of 2009 from Dr. Linda Haltinner who worked at the Soujourns Clinic. Dr. Haltinner wrote that Lindstrom was being treated for symptoms of MCS, that her reactivity was extreme and interfered with her normal life activities. She recounted an incident at the clinic when Lindstrom had a reaction and had to be escorted outside to allow her thinking to clear.

         Nurse Practitioner Brumson provided another opinion in July of 2010 in which she wrote that Lindstrom’s disability was due to environmental allergies and multiple chemical sensitivities as well as asthma caused by chemical exposure. An ideal controlled environment could best be approached in Lindstrom’s home. Dr. Brumson stated that Lindstrom’s limitations had existed since 1979 based on Lindstrom’s reports.

         Dr. Alex Bingham provided an opinion in December of 2010 that Lindstrom had been totally disabled since 1999 and had been partially disabled from 1990 to 1999. He found that Lindstrom was disabled due to MCS. He recounted Lindstrom’s symptoms and her history of reactions. He thought that she could not spend time in an environment with exposure to a wide array of chemicals and could function only in a highly controlled environment at home.

         At the first hearing on December 15, 2010, Lindstrom testified to a history of physical responses to environmental conditions, including cigarette smoke and pesticides, and to being chronically sick. She testified that when she became pregnant she stopped working because she was afraid of the effect of her reactions on the baby. After her son was born in 1991, her sensitivity to environmental conditions became worse and Lindstrom stayed at home to care for him.

         She testified that her reactions to chemicals in the environment included migraine headaches and anaphylactic shock. She said that she had anaphylactic reactions in 1993, 2004, and 2005 but was able to treat the episodes with Benadryl except for the bee sting in 2004 when she used an Epipen. Lindstrom ...

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