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Brennan v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

March 25, 2015

David Paul Brennan, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

J. THOMAS RAY, Magistrate Judge.

Instructions

The following recommended disposition was prepared for U.S. District Judge D.P. Marshall Jr. Any party may file written objections to this recommendation. An objection must be specific and state the factual and/or legal basis for the objection. An objection to a factual finding must identify the finding and the evidence supporting the objection. Objections must be filed with the clerk of the court no later than 14 days from the date of this recommendation.[1] The objecting party must serve the opposing party with a copy of an objection. Failing to object within 14 days waives the right to appeal questions of fact.[2] If no objections are filed, Judge Marshall may adopt the recommended disposition without independently reviewing all of the record evidence.

Rationale for Recommended Disposition

On January 1, 2012, the Commissioner granted David Paul Brennan's application for supplemental security income (SSI) and awarded SSI benefits beginning with the date of the application.[3] Benefits were awarded based on the Commissioner's determination that Brennan was disabled by his paranoid schizophrenia.[4]

Brennan, who is proceeding pro se, now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for child disability benefits.[5]

The Commissioner's decision. To obtain child disability benefits, a claimant must prove he had a disabling impairment before reaching age 22.[6] The Commissioner's ALJ found that Brennan had no severe impairment before age 22.[7] Consequently, the ALJ determined Brennan was not disabled before age 22 and denied the application.[8] Brennan asked the Appeals Council to review the decision.[9]

After the Appeals Council denied review, [10] the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.[11] Brennan filed this case to challenge the decision.[12] In reviewing the decision, the court must decide whether substantial evidence supports the decision and whether the ALJ made a legal error.[13] This recommendation explains why substantial evidence supports the decision and why the ALJ made no legal error.

Brennan's allegations. Brennan contends the ALJ applied incorrect legal standards.[14] He maintains the ALJ proceeded on the erroneous premise that the only possible evidence of the onset of disability is contemporaneous medical records. Brennan contends retrospective evidence - his treating psychiatrist's opinion, his testimony about symptoms before age 22, his mother's affidavit, and medical literature - prove his disability began before age 22. For these reasons, he argues substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision.

Applicable legal principles. The Commissioner's regulations provide for child disability insurance benefits for qualified claimants who are 18 years old or older and have a disability that began before age 22.[15] The "before age 22" requirement is important because Brennan was 39 years old when he applied for child disability benefits. Thus, Brennan had to prove he was disabled 17 years before he applied.

A claimant's allegations are not enough to prove disability; proving disability requires medical evidence.[16] In this case, there is no contemporaneous medical evidence because the medical evidence originated at age 39. A claimant can sometimes overcome the lack of contemporaneous medical evidence with a retrospective diagnosis.[17] "Where the impairment onset date is critical... [as in this case], retrospective medical opinions alone will usually not suffice unless the claimed disability date is corroborated, as by subjective evidence from lay observers like family members."[18] Brennan attempted to prove the onset of disability using a retrospective diagnosis, his testimony about symptoms before age 22, his mother's affidavit, and medical literature about the nature and onset of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. For the following reasons, this evidence fails to prove Brennan was disabled before age 22.

1. There is no diagnosis before age 22 to establish a severe mental impairment. The record reflects three diagnoses of mental illness: (1) a May 2011 diagnosis of psychotic disorder at age 39;[19] (2) a May 2011 diagnosis of schizophrenia at age 39;[20] and (3) a June 2012 diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder at age 40.[21] In each instance, a mental health provider stated a diagnosis, but did not apply the diagnosis retrospectively. Thus, there is no diagnosis before age 22.

2. There is no evidence of disabling symptoms before age 22. Even if the record included a diagnosis before age 22, proving disability requires more than a diagnosis.[22] The existence of mental illness is not per se disabling under social security law.[23] Proving disability requires proof of symptoms so severe - considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience - as to prevent the claimant from doing any kind of substantial gainful activity existing in significant numbers in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists where he lives, whether a job vacancy exists, or whether he would be hired if he applied ...


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