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Heggem v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 22, 2015

Neil M. Heggem, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.


JAMES A. TEIBORG, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff Neil M. Heggem appeals a denial of benefits by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Court now rules on his appeal.


A. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on August 30, 2011, alleging disability beginning September 1, 2010. The claim was denied on February 23, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on September 19, 2012. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was conducted by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on April 10, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona.

B. Factual Background

Plaintiff's alleged disability centers on his battles with depression and anxiety. The earliest evidence of this condition on the record are notes from his emergency room visit in July of 2010, where Plaintiff reported that his "life feels unmanageable" and that he had a medical history of depression and anxiety. Plaintiff was taken from that emergency room to a behavioral health center, where he was assessed by several doctors. After participating in an inpatient program, Plaintiff was discharged from the behavioral center in the fall of 2010.

Plaintiff began treatment with a mental health counselor, Karen Merry, L.P.C., in November of 2010. She completed a Medical Assessment of Claimant's Ability to Preform Work-Related Activities in December 2010, opining that Plaintiff had "severe" limitations in his abilities to respond to customary work pressures. Ms. Merry also opined that Plaintiff had "moderately severe" limitations in his ability to relate to other people, understand and carry out instructions, and perform simple, repetitive, or varied tasks. Ms. Merry further opined that there were "moderate" restrictions on Plaintiff's ability to perform daily activities, respond appropriately to supervision, and respond appropriately to co-workers.

In February of 2011, Plaintiff began treatment with Adam Koelsch, M.D. Plaintiff continued treatment with Dr. Koelsch for several years, and Dr. Koelsch kept hand-written notes of each visit and treatment plan. Dr. Koelsch completed his Medical Assessment of Claimant's Ability to Preform Work-Related Activities in March 2013, in which he concluded that Plaintiff had a "severe" deterioration in personal habits, as well as "moderate" restrictions on his ability to relate to other people, engage in daily activities, understand, carry out, and remember instructions, and respond appropriately to supervision and coworkers.

In March 2012, Plaintiff's wife called the police when he, in a depressed state, pulled a knife. Plaintiff was jailed because the police thought he was trying to hurt his wife, although Plaintiff claims he was contemplating hurting himself. Plaintiff was subsequently hospitalized, where he was given new medication which Plaintiff reported to be helpful.

Plaintiff was examined by several non-treating physicians. In February of 2012, Charles House, Ph.D. performed an in-depth assessment, concluding that while he "did not observe any obvious signs of malingering, " Plaintiff "did not seem as limited as he would sometimes describe himself as being." That same month, Plaintiff was examined by Robert Campion, M.D., who concluded that Plaintiff's ability to understand, remember, and carry out complex instruction is "mildly limited." Dr. Campion also concluded that Plaintiff's ability to get along with coworkers and maintain socially appropriate behavior in a work setting is "mild to moderately limited" and his ability to adapt to a workplace changes is "mildly limited." Plaintiff was also examined by Shannon Tromp, Ph.D, who observed that Plaintiff had trouble with concentration but scored Plaintiff perfectly on a mental status examination. Dr. Tromp specifically noted that her conclusions were largely based on Plaintiff's subjective reports.

Plaintiff completed a function report, in which he reported that although he sometimes helped with household chores, shopping with his wife, and caring for his disabled daughter, was usually "too ill to be functional" and too "overwhelmed and stressed out" to perform assigned tasks. He also reported that he had difficulty sleeping and that he needed prompting to get the motivation to eat or bathe. Plaintiff's wife also completed a function report, which reported largely the same information in Plaintiff's self-report.


A. Definition of Disability

To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show, among other things, that he is "under a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). The Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person is:

under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

B. Five-Step Evaluation Process

The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998). A finding of "not disabled" at any step in the sequential process will end the inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. The five steps are as follows:

1. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

2. If the claimant is not gainfully employed, the ALJ next determines whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). To be considered severe, the impairment must "significantly limit[] [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Basic work activities are the "abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs, " such as lifting, carrying, reaching, understanding, carrying out and remembering simple instructions, responding appropriately to co-workers, and dealing with changes in routine. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). Further, the impairment must either have lasted for "a continuous period of at least twelve months, " be expected to last for such a period, or be expected "to result in death." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). ...

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