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Freddette v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

January 7, 2019

Jennifer Freddette
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration


          Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge

         Jennifer Freddette challenges the denial of her applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who considered her applications improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence and Freddette's testimony in assessing her residual functional capacity. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. I deny Freddette's motion and affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Facts

         Freddette is a 48-year-old woman with a high school education. See Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”) 34. She has previously worked as a commercial cleaner at one facility for 10 years and as a certified nurse's aide at a nursing home for 2-3 years. Tr. 683. Freddette has allegedly been disabled since July 11, 2014, due to a combination of anxiety disorder, mood disorder, and asthma. See Tr. 25.[1]

         Freddette's applications were initially denied in September 2015. On January 4, 2017, she testified at a hearing before ALJ Lisa Groeneveld-Meijer, who ultimately denied her applications. Tr. 23. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Appeals Council denied Freddette's request for review in October 2017, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. See Tr. 1-6. Freddette now appeals.

         B. Medical Opinions

         The record reflects medical opinions of three nontreating providers: Dr. Stefanie Griffin, a psychologist who performed a one-time mental consultative examination; Dr. Stuart Gitlow, a psychiatrist who reviewed Freddette's records and testified at the hearing as an impartial medical expert; and Dr. John Warren, a state agency psychologist who rendered his opinion after reviewing the evidence of record.[2]

         Dr. Griffin diagnosed Freddette with generalized anxiety disorder, mood disorder, and borderline intellection functioning. Tr. 688. She opined that Freddette appeared to require more support than her peers to complete complex daily activities. She explained that Freddette reported heavy reliance on her mother, including managing her household finances. Freddette also regularly forgot to take her medication. Tr. 686.

         According to Dr. Griffin, Freddette did not appear capable of maintaining appropriate social interactions with others. She noted that Freddette was polite and cooperative during testing, presented with neutral mood, and had a stable and appropriate affect. Tr. 687. Freddette, however, endorsed symptoms of severe depression and anxiety on self-report measures and reported yelling at her mother out of frustration. Tr. 684, 687. She was “overly timid and apologetic” during the exam, which Dr. Griffin found “consistent with her report that she tends to isolate because of feelings of worthlessness and discomfort around others.” Tr. 687.

         The results of a Folstein Mini-Mental State Exam that Dr. Griffin administrated indicated that Freddette's mental state was “impaired” and her overall intellectual performance was in the borderline impaired range. Tr. 684. Dr. Griffin noted that Freddette had difficulty following a three-step command and had to concentrate carefully while test instructions were being given. Tr. 684, 687. As a result, Dr. Griffin believed that Freddette was not capable of consistently understanding and remembering complex spoken information or consistently completing complex tasks. Tr. 687.

         In the end, Dr. Griffin concluded that Freddette did not appear capable of adhering to a regular work schedule, maintaining appropriate interactions with others in a work setting, or making work-related decisions. She explained that this was due to Freddette's intellectual limitations and unmanaged psychiatric symptoms. Tr. 688.

         Dr. Gitlow reviewed all the evidence in the record, including Dr. Griffin's report, and testified at the hearing as an impartial medical expert. Dr. Gitlow opined that Freddette had moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, and applying information; mild limitations in interacting with others; moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace; and moderate limitations in adapting and managing herself. Tr. 51. Because of her difficulty managing anger, Dr. Gitlow believed that Freddette “would not do well with a significant No. of peers, colleagues, critical supervisors” or the general public but could interact with a limited No. of people at work if the same people were there day-to-day. Tr. 54, 55-56.

         Dr. Gitlow testified that Freddette's personality disorder and intellectual function “have been the same, virtually, throughout her adult life” and that she showed “good adaptive functioning despite these problems, including working for a single facility for ten years and working at another facility for two to three years.” Tr. 50. Although he agreed that Freddette's issues with mood and anxiety “appear to have worsened” over time, Dr. Gitlow testified that she had a “good” but “[n]ot a perfect” response to treatment with medication and therapy. Tr. 50-51.

         State agency psychologist Dr. Warren also reviewed the record evidence. He opined that Freddette was able to “perform basic tasks and relate with others well enough for routine workplace purposes;” understand and remember simple instructions; carry out simple tasks within acceptable attention, persistence, and pace tolerances; and relate adequately with supervisors and coworkers, but not the general public. Tr. 106-109.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ assessed Freddette's claims under the five-step, sequential analysis required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, she found that Freddette had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 11, 2014, her alleged disability onset date. Tr. 25. At step two, the ALJ found that Freddette's anxiety disorder, mood disorder, and asthma qualified as severe impairments. Tr. 25. At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Freddette's impairments, considered individually or in combination, qualified for any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 26; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526.

         The ALJ then found that Freddette had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at all exertional levels, with the non-exertional limitations of doing “work that is routine day to day, with simple tasks, training by demonstration, and few, if any, changes” and no “contact with the general public or tandem tasks.” Tr. 27-28. The ALJ also added the limitation that Freddette could not be exposed to potential irritants or poorly ventilated areas. Tr. 28.

         In making the RFC determination, the ALJ concluded that Freddette's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” Tr. 29. The ALJ considered Freddette's daily activities and found that Freddette lived alone with her four-year-old son, who was hyperactive and had speech problems; cared for her son, including by preparing simple meals, bathing him, reading to him, taking him outside to play “here and there, ” and playing Legos with him; used public transportation; performed household chores such as cleaning, organizing, and doing laundry; helped a friend by doing her dishes and cleaning her house; and attended to her personal care needs. Tr. 28-29, 32. Although Freddette reported relying on her mother for assistance, the ALJ noted that they communicated mostly by phone because her mother initially lived three hours away from Freddette and later moved to Florida. Tr. 28.

         Regarding Freddette's asthma, the ALJ credited treatment notes stating that the condition was well controlled with medication. Tr. 29. In terms of her anxiety and mood disorders, the ALJ noted that “mental status findings have remained relatively benign, with no evidence of the severe deficits” that Freddette described. Tr. 29. According to the ALJ, Freddette's mental health issues “appear largely caused by situational stressors including financial worries, parenting challenges with a four-year-old son with behavioral issues, social isolation and unemployment.” Tr. 29.

         The ALJ reviewed the medical opinions in the record and gave “great weight” to Dr. Gitlow's opinion because she found it well supported by the objective medical evidence. The ALJ also noted that Dr. Gitlow had reviewed all the evidence, was familiar with the SSA's regulations regarding disability determination, and was a highly qualified specialist who testified about issues in his area of specialty. Tr. 31-32.

         The ALJ gave “substantial weight” to Dr. Warren's opinion. She reasoned that his opinion was “not inconsistent with the medical evidence as a whole.” Tr. 33.

         The ALJ effectively adopted Dr. Griffin's opinion that Freddette could not understand complex instructions or complete complex tasks by limiting Freddette's RFC to simple tasks and training by demonstration. But the ALJ gave “very little weight” to Dr. Griffin's opinion that Freddette could not adhere to a regular work schedule, interact appropriately at work, or make work-related decisions. The ALJ reasoned that those limitations were inconsistent with Dr. ...

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