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Lagasse v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

April 18, 2018

Jillian Virginia Lagasse
Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration

          Janine Gawryl, Esq. Robert J. Rabuck, Esq.


          Joseph A. DiClerico, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Jillian Lagasse sought judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, that granted benefits for only a closed period of disability.[1] The magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation to grant Lagasse's motion to reverse, deny the Acting Commissioner's motion to affirm, and to remand the case for an award of benefits. The Acting Commissioner filed an objection to the report and recommendation, Lagasse did not file a response to the objection.

         Standard of Review

         On referral of a dispositive motion, a magistrate judge issues proposed findings for the disposition of the motion in a report and recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties then have an opportunity to object to the report and recommendation and to respond to an objection. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(2). The court conducts a de novo review of any part of the report of recommendation that has been objected to and may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." § 636(b)(1); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).


         In April of 2013 when she was twenty-nine years old, Lagasse was diagnosed with endocarditis, aortic valve vegetation, severe aortic regurgitation, and pleuritic chest pain. She received medical care for those conditions, and psychiatric treatment because of increased anxiety and depression. She had aortic valve replacement surgery on June 21, 2013, at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She continued to experience anxiety after her surgery, with panic attacks, depression, drug use and abuse, and emergency hospitalizations.

         On October 13, 2013, Lagasse underwent an urgent procedure to remove and replace the aortic valve. During the procedure, Lagasse suffered a brain hemorrhage (cerebrovascular accident) that caused a loss of sensation and loss of fine motor control on her left side. The medical records indicate that she continued to be treated for physical and mental issues.

         Lagasse applied for social security benefits in 2014, alleging an onset of disability as of April 2, 2013. She claimed disability based on the cerebrovascular accident and its effects including left-sided weakness, endocarditis and chest wall pain, valvular heart disease, fibromyalgia, asthma, intermittent left hand tremors, migraine headaches, obesity, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, personality disorder, and sleep disorder. A hearing was held before an ALJ on March 15, 2016.

         The ALJ issued a decision on April 8, 2016, in which he found that Lagasse had been disabled between April 2, 2013, and December 8, 2015, but that the disability ended on December 9, 2015. In support, the ALJ found that Lagasse had severe impairments from April 2, 2013, through December 8, 2015, due to "status post cerebrovascular accident, valve defect, depression, anxiety, a personality disorder and polysubstance abuse" and that she could perform light work with certain limitations, but would miss work three or four days each month. Doc. 7-2, at 19 & 22. The ALJ found that as of December 9, 2015, Lagasse had the same severe impairments and the same residual functional capacity except that due to medical improvement she would no longer be absent three or four times each month. Based on that assessment, the ALJ found that Lagasse was no longer disabled as of December 9 and found a closed period of disability. When the Appeals Council denied review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Acting Commissioner.

         Lagasse sought judicial review and moved to reverse the decision. Lagasse argued that the ALJ erred in finding medical improvement as of December 9, 2015, because there was no supporting medical opinion, and the ALJ made the finding based on his own review of medical data. Lagasse also argued that the ALJ had misinterpreted the medical records and improperly weighed the medical opinions, which did not show medical improvement in December of 2015. In her motion to affirm, the Acting Commissioner argued that substantial evidence supported the decision. Lagasse filed a reply.

         The magistrate judge found that the ALJ erred in finding medical improvement by December 9, 2015, addressing issues not raised by Lagasse in her motion. Specifically, the magistrate faulted the ALJ for relying on Lagasse's activities (rather than medical records) earlier in 2015, during the period of disability, to find medical improvement. The magistrate also faulted the ALJ for relying on Lagasse's medical records in December and January to show medical improvement when the number of medical visits could support an inference of continued disability due to absenteeism. Based on the errors found, the magistrate recommended that the case be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, rather than for further proceedings.


         In her objection to the report and recommendation, the Acting Commissioner argues that the magistrate impermissibly drew her own inferences from the medical evidence, contrary to the ALJ's inferences, to conclude that substantial evidence of medical improvement was lacking. The Acting Commissioner also argues ...

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