United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS REGARDING DENIAL OF SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY INSURANCE BENEFITS
JUDITH G. DEIN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Janet Peltonovich ("Peltonovich") has brought this action pursuant to sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), in order to challenge the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits. The matter is before the court on the plaintiff's "Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security" (Docket No. 13), by which the plaintiff is seeking an order reversing the Commissioner's decision, and remanding the matter back to the Social Security Administration for the payment of SSDI benefits. It is also before the court on the "Defendant's Motion for Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner" (Docket No. 23), by which the Commissioner is seeking an order upholding her decision to deny Peltonovich's claim. The fundamental issue raised by the parties' motions is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), in reaching her conclusion that the plaintiff was not disabled, erred by giving little weight to the opinions of Peltonovich's treating physicians regarding the severity and limiting effects of the plaintiff's upper extremity impairments, and affording substantial weight to the opinion of a State agency physician, John Jao, M.D., who determined that Peltonovich had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of light work. The plaintiff contends that the ALJ should not have credited Dr. Jao's opinion because he specializes in "special senses" rather than in the field of orthopedic medicine, and because he based his assessment on a partial review of the administrative record. Instead, Peltonovich asserts that the ALJ should have deferred to the assessments of her treating hand surgeon, Jesse B. Jupiter, M.D., and her primary care physician, R. Christopher Herron, M.D., both of whom stated that Peltonovich was disabled and incapable of engaging in substantial gainful employment.
For all the reasons detailed herein, this court finds that the ALJ's decision to accept Dr. Jao's opinion over the opinions of Drs. Jupiter and Herron was appropriate and supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the plaintiff's motion to reverse and remand the matter for an award of benefits is DENIED, and the defendant's motion to affirm the Commissioner's decision is ALLOWED.
II. STATEMENT OF FACTS
Peltonovich was born on July 14, 1960, and was 51 years old at the time of her hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 15, 186) She has a high school diploma and completed one year of college. (Tr. 16, 199). Peltonovich began working full time as a production associate for Lucent Technologies in March 1980. (Tr. 19-20, 199). In 1991, she underwent carpal tunnel surgery on her right wrist, and was placed on medical restriction, which was aimed at allowing her to avoid repetitive motion with either of her hands. (Tr. 18, 25, 201-02). The plaintiff continued to work full time at Lucent, pursuant to her restricted status, until she was laid off in May 2002. (Tr. 18-19).
After leaving Lucent, Peltonovich obtained part-time work as a cashier in a card store. (Tr. 21, 199). She later worked part-time as a cashier in a pharmacy, and for one day as a bagger/cashier in a grocery store. (Tr. 22, 199). However, Peltonovich claims that she was unable to perform her job duties, or maintain any of those positions for more than a brief period of time, due to pain in her wrists, elbows, forearms and neck. (See Tr. 21-24). She further claims that the chronic pain she experiences as a result of carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, ulnar tunnel syndrome and tendinitis in both elbows, and costochondritis, prevents her from maintaining any type of gainful employment. (Tr. 23-24; see also Tr. 201-02).
Peltonovich filed an application for SSDI benefits on December 20, 2010, claiming that she had been unable to work since May 30, 2002 due to symptoms stemming from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, bilateral ulnar tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and sciatica. (Tr. 87, 186, 198). In order to qualify for SSDI benefits, an individual must become disabled during the period under which he or she is insured by the program. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.131. Because Peltonovich was last insured on March 31, 2008, she had to establish that she became disabled on or before that date. (Dec. 1; Tr. 72).
The plaintiff's application was denied initially in March 2011, and upon reconsideration in May 2011. (Tr. 67-68, 91-93, 98-100). Peltonovich subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Tr. 89-90). The request was granted and a hearing took place on April 10, 2012 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. (Tr. 8-45, 101-02). Peltonovich, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (Tr. 8, 14-37). Additionally, the ALJ elicited testimony from a vocational expert ("VE"), who described the plaintiff's vocational background based on her past work experience, and responded to hypothetical questions designed to determine whether jobs exist in the regional or national economies for an individual with the same age, educational background, past work experience, and RFC as the plaintiff. (Tr. 37-44).
On April 19, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Peltonovich's application for benefits. (Dec. 10; Tr. 81). The plaintiff then filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Social Security Appeals Council, and on March 28, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the request, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review. (Tr. 1-3, 6-7). Accordingly, the plaintiff has exhausted all of her administrative remedies, and the case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
The ALJ's Decision
As described above, in order to qualify for SSDI benefits, Peltonovich had to establish that she was disabled on or before March 31, 2008, the last date when she was insured. The ALJ concluded that from May 30, 2002 through March 31, 2008, the plaintiff "was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act[, ]" which defines "disability" as "the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." (Dec. 1; Tr. 72). There is no dispute that the ALJ, in reaching her decision that Peltonovich was not disabled, applied the five-step sequential evaluation required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The procedure resulted in the following analysis, which is detailed in the ALJ's "Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law." (See Dec. 3-9; Tr. 74-80).
The first inquiry in the five-step process is whether the claimant is "engaged in substantial gainful work activity[.]" Seavey v. Barnhart , 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). If so, the claimant is automatically considered not disabled and the application for benefits is denied. See id. In the instant case, the ALJ determined that Peltonovich did not engage in substantial gainful work activity from May 30, 2002, the alleged onset date of her disability, through her last insured date of March 31, 2008. (Dec. Finding #2; Tr. 74). Therefore, the ALJ proceeded to the next step in the sequential analysis.
The second inquiry is whether the claimant has a "severe impairment, " meaning an "impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]" 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If not, the claimant is considered not disabled and the application for benefits is denied. See Seavey , 276 F.3d at 5. Here, the ALJ concluded that during the relevant time period, Peltonovich suffered from several severe impairments, including bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, bilateral ulnar tunnel syndrome, and bilateral elbow tendonitis. (Dec. Finding #3; Tr. 74). Accordingly, her analysis continued.
The third inquiry in the sequential analysis is whether the claimant has an impairment equivalent to any of the specifically listed impairments contained in Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations, in which case the claimant would automatically be found disabled. See Seavey , 276 F.3d at 5; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). At this step, the ALJ concluded that Peltonovich's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments. (Dec. Finding #4; Tr. 76). Thus, she proceeded to step 4 in the evaluation process.
The fourth inquiry asks whether "the applicant's residual functional capacity' is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work[.]" Seavey , 276 F.3d at 5; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Accordingly, it is at this stage of the analysis that the ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC. In the instant ...