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Gorham v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

August 6, 2019

Phyllis Gorham, Claimant
Andrew Saul, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant



         Pursuant 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 decision.

         For the reasons discussed below, claimant's motion is necessarily denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted.


         I. Factual Background

         A 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.

         Gorham 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;”[1] and “blood in head.”[2] Admin. Rec. at 245.

         Gorham 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 disorder.

         Treatment 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 concentration”).

         On 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.

         On 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 157.

         Finally, 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.

         II. Procedural History

         On 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 Judge (“ALJ”).

         On 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.

         III. The ALJ's Findings

         In 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, ...

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