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Camp v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 14, 2017

Debora Camp
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2017 DNH 047


          Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge

         Debora Camp has appealed the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge at the SSA (“ALJ”) ruled that, despite the severe impairment of Huntington's Disease, Camp retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work as a director of counseling, and thus is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council later denied Camp's request for review, see id. § 404.967, with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on her application, see id. § 404.981. Camp then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Camp has moved to reverse the decision, see L.R. 9.1(b), contending that the ALJ erred: (1) at step 2 of the process, by improperly dismissing Camp's mental impairments; (2) by failing to conduct a proper analysis of Huntington's Disease at step 3 of the process; and (3) by failing to consider Camp's mental impairments when determining her RFC. 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 Camp'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 sequential evaluation process in assessing Camp's request for disability and disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. After determining that Camp had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period between the alleged onset of her disability on December 8, 2009, and the date she was last insured, December 31, 2011, the ALJ analyzed the severity of her impairments. At this second step, the ALJ concluded that Camp had a single severe impairment: Huntington's Disease.[2]

         At the third step, the ALJ found that Camp's severe impairment did not meet or “medically equal” the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations before the date that she was last insured. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. Specifically, the ALJ reviewed Camp's Huntington's Disease under section 11.17 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and concluded that it did not meet the severity requirements of that listing.[3]

         After reviewing the medical evidence of record, Camp's own statements, the opinion of Camp's treating neurologist, Dr. Steven Hersch, the hearing testimony of an impartial medical expert who had reviewed Camp's medical record, Dr. James Haynes, and the opinion of Dr. Lawrence Johnson, who also reviewed the medical record, the ALJ concluded that, as of her date last insured, Camp retained the RFC to perform light work, with the limitation that she “could occasionally perform fine manipulation with her upper extremities.”[4] Finding that, even limited in this manner, Camp was able to perform her past, relevant work as a director of counselling, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565, the ALJ concluded his analysis and found that Camp was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         III. Analysis

         Camp challenges the ALJ's treatment of her alleged mental limitations at three junctures. First, she contends that the ALJ erred at the second step of the process by failing to conclude that Camp had a severe mental health impairment, despite her complaints of depression and anxiety and a medical expert's explanation that symptoms of Huntington's disease can include progressively declining mental impairments such as agitation, irritability, depression, and disinhibition, among others. Second, Camp argues that the ALJ erred at the third step of the process by failing to consider her mental impairments related to Huntington's disease in concluding that her impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finally, Camp contends that the ALJ erred at step four of the process by crafting an RFC that did not account for Camp's alleged mental impairments. The court addresses each argument in turn and concludes that the ALJ did not err in any of these analyses.

         A. Step 2

         “‘[A]n individual cannot receive disability benefits . . . unless the individual can establish that the current period of disability began on or prior to the expiration of insured status.'” Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 38 n.7 (1st Cir. 2016) (quoting Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1460-62 (9th Cir. 1995). At step two of the five-step process, the ALJ determined that Camp had a single severe impairment through her date last insured -- Huntington's Disease.[5] He noted that, though Camp complained of anxiety and depression[6] as of January 2014, she did not mention these conditions before 2012, when she raised them in connection with a motor vehicle accident and a friend's suicide.[7] As such, the ALJ concluded, she did not complain of or seek treatment for any mental health impairment during the period between the onset of her disability, December 8, 2009, and her date last insured, December 31, 2011, and accordingly had no severe mental health impairments during that period.[8]

         Camp first argues that the ALJ erred in defining the relevant period and considering evidence only within that period. Because Huntington's disease is progressively degenerative and “affects motor and cognitive abilities as well as mood and behavior, ”[9] she argues, the onset date of her mental ailments connected with it -- that is, anxiety and depression --is ambiguous.[10] Thus, Camp argues, the ALJ erred by failing to analyze this case as described in Social Security Ruling 83-20, Program Policy Statement: Titles II and XVI: Onset of Disability (PPS-100), 1983 WL 31249 (S.S.A. 1983) (“SSR-83-20”), including by seeking a psychological medical advisor to determine whether her mental impairments began before December 8, 2008.

         The ALJ did not err by failing to call a medical advisor pursuant to SSR 83-20 when determining the onset date of Camp's disability. For disabilities of nontraumatic origin, “[t]he starting point in determining the date of onset of disability is the individual's statement as to when disability began. This is found on the disability application . . . .” SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *2. This date “should be used if it is consistent with all the evidence available.” Id. In her application, Camp alleged that she “became unable to work because of [her] disabling condition on December 8, 2009.”[11] If the claimant wishes to change her alleged onset date, she may do so “in a Form SSA-5002 (Report of Contact), a letter, another document, or the claimant's testimony at a hearing.” SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *2. There is no evidence that Camp attempted to do so here.

         “SSR 83-20 instructs the ALJ to call a medical advisor” only when “‘precise evidence is not available' and thus there is a ‘need for inferences'” to determine the onset date. Fischer, 831 F.3d at 35 (quoting SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *3). While, “[a]rguably, every onset determination reached by an ALJ . . . will involve some degree of ambiguity and inference . . . there must be some line.” Id. (internal citations omitted). In Fischer, the First Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that no ambiguity exists where the medical evidence indicates that the claimant's symptoms had not reached a disabling level of severity before the claimant's date last insured. Id. at 35-36. In such a case, the ALJ's reliance not “upon the absence of medical evidence but rather [on] the existence of ‘precise' medical evidence . . . eliminated the need for the ALJ to infer that the [claimant's] onset date preceded her [date last insured].” Id. at 36.

         So it is here. The ALJ did, here, find that Camp has a severe impairment: Huntington's disease. Camp received treatment for that impairment during the period between her onset date and her date last insured -- records that the ALJ reviewed and considered. Camp does not dispute that, with the exception of one examination in November 2009, the medical record lacks any indication that Camp sought treatment for, or even complained of, mental impairments associated with Huntington's disease[12] before her date last insured, despite her medical treatments associated with other aspects of that disease. Accordingly, because the ALJ's conclusion that Camp had “no medically determinable mental health impairment”[13] before ...

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