United States District Court, D. Rhode Island
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
JOHN J. McCONNELL, Jr., District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on Mr. Renaud's Motion for Reversal (ECF No. 6) of the decision of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) affirming the denial of supplemental security income (SSI) benefits to him on his claim of total disability. The Commissioner has filed a Motion to Affirm. (ECF No. 7). For the reasons stated below, the Court remands the case for reconsideration by the ALJ.
Brian K. Renaud filed an application for supplemental security income (SSI) on June 19, 2012. (Tr. 48). He alleged a disability, due to a number of impairments, beginning June 6, 2012. Id. Mr. Renaud's original claim cited only physical impairments, but on reconsideration he added anxiety disorder as well as sleep apnea. (Tr. 48, 72). His claim was initially denied, denied on reconsideration, and denied after an evidentiary hearing held by ALJ Hugh S. Atkins on July 18, 2013. Mr. Renaud testified at that hearing, as did vocational experts Stephen Kaplan and Paul Murgo. On August 1, 2013, the ALJ granted the Commissioner's Motion to Affirm and denied Mr. Renaud's Motion for Reversal, finding that he was not under a disability during the relevant time period because he had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform his former work as a customer service representative. (Tr. 21). Most significant to this decision, the ALJ also found that Mr. Renaud did not suffer from a severe anxiety impairment. (Tr. 15).
Mr. Renaud at the time of the hearing was a 48-year-old man living with a disabled partner. (Tr. 35, 36). Armed with a GED, Mr. Renaud had worked consistently, most recently employed for two years by a temporary agency that deployed him to a call-in center for CVS Caremark, where he spoke to customers and investigated and verified insurance information. (Tr. 31, 32). Before that, he had worked as a maintenance worker at a nursing home, as the parts manager of a repair shop, in a warehouse, in retail for eight years, and as a "rides supervisor" at Rocky Point Amusement Park. (Tr. 33, 34, 180). His earnings record dated back to 1980, and was sufficient to permit him to remain insured through December 31, 2017. (Tr. 13).
Mr. Renaud premised his claim for disability on myriad conditions, specifically: coronary heart disease, which had required triple bypass surgery in 2012 as well as the subsequent placing of stents (Tr. 530), sleep apnea, diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, and anxiety manifested by frequent panic attacks of significant duration. The ALJ agreed that the heart disease, the sleep apnea, and the diabetes were all severe impairments, "because they cause more than a minimal limitation on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities...[, ] are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, and have lasted or are expected to last at least 12 months." (Tr. 15).
The core of this Motion to Reverse is Mr. Renaud's complaint that the ALJ failed to find his anxiety disorder severe. For the reasons outlined below, this Court agrees that the ALJ's finding was not supported by substantial evidence, that the ALJ failed to justify the little weight given to opinions of both treating and consultative experts, and that the ALJ did not sufficiently explain his failure to credit completely Mr. Renaud's description of the limitations his anxiety disorder placed upon him. These reasons, along with the substantial evidence that his anxiety disorder presents limitations both to his daily living and to his working ability, require reconsideration. The Step 4 RFC finding is integrally linked to the type and extent of the severe impairments found and thus cannot stand if the Step 2 determination is not sustained.
Evidence of Anxiety
A mental state impairment requires assessment of the condition against four broad functional areas: (a) activities of daily living; (b) social functioning, (c) concentration, persistence or pace; and (d) episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3). There was no evidence in this case of decompensation. The evidence of anxiety disorder, manifested in panic attacks,  came from three sources: Mr. Renaud's treating physicians (including their treatment notes), the state agency consultants, and Mr. Renaud's testimony at the hearing.
Jeffrey Borkan, M.D. was Mr. Renaud's treating physician, having been his primary care physician since 2005. (Tr. 176, 501). He offered the opinion that Mr. Renaud had a severe panic and anxiety disorder that significantly limited his ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 514, 886, 512). Dr. Borkan appears to have first begun prescribing medication for Mr. Renaud's anxiety in early July 2012, with a 30-day trial of Buspar. (Tr. 299). By November, 2012, Mr. Renaud had been switched to Prozac. (Tr. 204, 220). Even though the Prozac had increased from 20 mg daily to 40 mg (Tr. 506, 513), Dr. Borkan concluded in January 2013 that Mr. Renaud's "[d]aily panic attacks will make work difficult to impossible." (Tr. 512-13). While there was some improvement in February 2013 (Tr. 516, 880), by April 2013, Mr. Renaud was again reporting daily panic attacks (sometimes twice daily), lasting for about ...