United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
J. MCAULIFFE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), claimant, Phyllis Gorham, moves
to reverse the Commissioner's decision denying her
application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II
of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C.
§ 423, and Supplemental Security Income Benefits under
Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(c).
The Commissioner objects and moves for an order affirming the
reasons discussed below, claimant's motion is necessarily
denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.
detailed factual background can be found in the
Commissioner's statement of facts (document no. 9), and
Gorham's statement of facts (document no. 7). A brief
summary is provided, with an emphasis on Gorham's mental
health history, because her appeal of the ALJ's decision
is focused on that history.
was born in 1966. Prior to 2008, she primarily worked as a
truck driver, driving 18-wheeler tractor trailers. She is
five feet, five inches tall, and weighs approximately 238
pounds. In her application for benefits, Gorham stated that
the following physical or mental conditions limit her ability
to work: severe depression; chronic back pain; “tumor
in cervical wall;” bipolar disorder; “sleep
insomnia;” irritable bowel syndrome;
“[w]orsened-[c]hronic [p]ain in neck and shoulders,
[c]hest cavity;” “cells in [four] different
areas;” and “blood in
head.” Admin. Rec. at 245.
has an extensive history of treatment for her mental health
conditions with Goodwin Community Health. She is treated by
Rima Sutton, L.I.C.S.W, and psychiatric nurse practitioner
Lisa von Braun. The Goodwin Community Health treatment
records indicate that Gorham has been diagnosed with
depression, and anxiety, as well as post-traumatic stress
records from other providers during the relevant time period
generally indicate normal mental status exams. See, e.g.,
Admin. Rec. at 538 (Mar. 9, 2017, office visit with physician
assistant Gertrude Trumpy for “health
maintenance;” “Mood and affect: no depression,
anxiety, or agitation”); Admin. Rec. at 549 (Jan. 25,
2017, office visit with Trumpy for “chronic pain and
conjunctivitis;” “Mood and affect: no depression,
anxiety, or agitation”); Admin. Rec. at 555 (Jan. 4,
2017, office visit with Trumpy; stating same); Admin. Rec. at
561 (Dec. 21, 2016, office visit with Trumpy; same); Admin.
Rec. at 574 (Oct. 26, 2016, office visit with Trumpy; same);
Admin. Rec. at 600 (June 29, 2016, office visit with Trumpy;
same); Admin. Rec. at 683 (Mar. 1, 2017, office visit with
Dr. Allen Carignan, PainCare Centers Somersworth, noting
“normal” judgment, insight, mood and affect;
“appropriate” thought content, and
“cooperative” attitude); Admin. Rec. at 689 (Mar.
15, 2017, office visit with Dr. Carignan, noting same);
Admin. Rec. at 697 (Apr. 12, 2017, office visit with Dr.
Carignan; same); Admin. Rec. at 764 (Jul. 11, 2017, office
visit with Dr. Carignan; same); Admin. Rec. at 981 (Feb. 1,
2017, office visit with Dr. Robert Ruben, Atlantic Digestive;
noting “normal mood and affect, ”
“cooperative;” “[n]ormal attention span and
August 1, 2017, consultative examiner Dr. Robert Su Prescott
conducted a comprehensive psychological examination of
Gorham. Admin. Rec. at 751 - 756. Dr. Prescott observed that
Gorham appeared “to be in emotional distress. She was
talkative and made various complaints about people. She did
have a bit of an irritable edge and swore some. She was
tearful on occasion.” Admin. Rec. at 751. Based on his
evaluation, Dr. Prescott opined:
• Gorham was capable of understanding and remembering
basic work instructions, and making adequate judgments on
fairly straightforward work-related decisions;
• Gorham was able to focus attention on basic work
activities only for very short periods of time, and would not
be expected to effectively keep up pace or complete tasks in
a timely manner at a typical work setting;
• Gorham did not appear able to interact effectively or
without considerable distress with others on the job on a
consistent, sustained basis;
• Gorham did not appear presently capable of regulating
her emotions, controlling her behavior, or maintaining
well-being at a typical work setting on a consistent basis,
and would not be expected to do well with demands placed on
her or unexpected changes in routine.
Admin. Rec. at 755-756.
August 15, 2017, after reviewing claimant's medical
records (including Dr. Prescott's report), state agency
medical consultant, Dr. Michael Schneider, assessed
claimant's mental impairments. Dr. Schneider opined that
claimant was moderately limited with respect to memory,
understanding and concentration, but could understand,
remember and carry out short, simple tasks. Admin. Rec. at
156-157. He further opined that claimant had moderate social
limitations, but would be able to interact in a work setting
where she avoided the general public, in a somewhat isolated
workstation. Finally, Dr. Schneider opined that Gorham had
moderate adaptive limitations, but could adapt to simple
changes in the work setting. With respect to Dr.
Prescott's report, Dr. Schneider wrote: “Dr.
Prescott's opinions of inability in some areas is
inconsistent with the evidence, his own observations and
exam, so they are not given any weight.” Admin. Rec. at
by letter dated September 9, 2017, claimant's treating
psychiatric nurse practitioner, von Braun, opined that, due
to the functional limitations imposed by her diagnosis,
Gorham met the “definition of disability under the
Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and
the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.” Admin. Rec. at 758.
Von Braun further wrote, “Due to her disability,
Phyllis has certain limitations regarding social
interaction/coping with stress/anxiety.” Id.
March 29, 2017, and August 12, 2017, claimant filed
applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability
Insurance Benefits, respectively. She alleged that she was
disabled and had been unable to work since October 1, 2008.
Those applications were denied on August 16, 2017, and
claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
January 31, 2018, claimant, her attorney, and an impartial
vocational expert appeared before an ALJ, who considered
claimant's application de novo. At the hearing, the
claimant amended her alleged onset date to April 22, 2016. On
February 27, 2018, the ALJ issued his written decision,
concluding that claimant was not disabled, as that term is
defined in the Act, through the date of his decision.
Claimant then requested review by the Appeals Council. The
Appeals Council denied claimant's request for review,
finding no reason to review the ALJ's decision.
Accordingly, the ALJ's denial of claimant's
applications for benefits became the final decision of the
Commissioner, subject to judicial review. Subsequently,
claimant filed a timely action in this court, asserting that
the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial
evidence. Claimant then filed a “Motion to Reverse
Decision of the Commissioner” (document no. 6). In
response, the Commissioner filed a “Motion for an Order
Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner” (document
no. 8). Those motions are pending.
The ALJ's Findings
concluding that claimant was not disabled within the meaning
of the Act, the ALJ properly employed the mandatory five-step
sequential evaluation process described in 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520 and 416.920. See generally Barnhart
v. Thomas,540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003). Accordingly, he first
determined that claimant had not been engaged in substantial
gainful employment since her alleged onset of disability,
April 22, 2016. Admin Rec. at 20. He next concluded that
claimant suffers from the following severe impairments:
“degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine,
obstructive sleep apnea, depression and anxiety.”
Admin. Rec. at 22-24. The ALJ also considered claimant's
diagnoses of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
cataplexy, degenerative disc disease in her cervical spine,
gastro-esophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), and
gastritis, and determined that all were non-severe
impairments. Finally, the ALJ considered claimant's
history of thyroid cancer, hypothyroidism, Hepatitis B,
adenocarcinoma, and leukocytosis, ...