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Martinez-Lopez v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 22, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant

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For Jaylen Martinez-Lopez, Plaintiff: Christopher S. O'Connor, LEAD ATTORNEY, Citizens Disability, LLC, Waltham, MA; Pamela S. Kuhn, Andover, MA.

For Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant: Anita Johnson, LEAD ATTORNEY, United States Attorney's Office, John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse, Boston, MA.

For Social Security Administration, Interested Party: Thomas D. Ramsey, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Boston, MA.

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Judith Gail Dein, United State Magistrate Judge


The plaintiff, Jaylen Martinez-Lopez (" Martinez-Lopez" ), 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 claims for Social Security Disability Insurance (" SSDI" ) and Supplemental Security Income (" SSI" ) benefits. The matter is before the court on the " Plaintiff's Motion for Order Reversing the Commissioner's Decision" (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 further consideration. It is also before the court on the " Defendant's Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision" (Docket No. 26), by which the Commissioner is seeking an order upholding her decision to deny the plaintiff's claims for benefits. At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ), in reaching his conclusion that Martinez-Lopez was not disabled, failed to apply the appropriate analysis in connection with his determination that her physical impairments were not " severe." Also at issue is whether the ALJ appropriately weighed the available opinion evidence regarding the extent of the plaintiff's mental limitations. For all the reasons described below, this court finds that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the plaintiff's motion to reverse and remand is DENIED, and the defendant's motion to affirm is ALLOWED.


Martinez-Lopez was born on March 15, 1984, and was 25 years old at the time she applied for Social Security benefits. (Tr. 67, 812). Although she left high school shortly before completing her senior year, Martinez-Lopez was able to earn a GED in 2002. (Tr. 96, 833-34). She also has held a variety of jobs, including jobs as a waitress, a cashier at a grocery store, a car rental agent, a customer service representative, and a gate agent for an airline company. (Tr. 97, 834-44). However, the plaintiff left her last job as a gate agent in April 2009, after her obstetrician advised her to stay out of work due to an outbreak of scabies among employees at the airport. (Tr. 96, 235). At that time, Martinez-Lopez was pregnant with her third child and was experiencing a number of complications with the pregnancy. (Tr. 235; see also Tr. 813). Following the delivery of

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her child in May 2009, Martinez-Lopez suffered severe post-partum depression and anxiety for which she obtained psychiatric treatment. (Tr. 233-35). She claims that her mental impairments, as well as a number of physical impairments, have prevented her from returning to work or from carrying out any alternative type of gainful employment. (Tr. 845).

Procedural History

On January 14, 2010, the plaintiff filed applications for SSI and SSDI, claiming that she had been unable to work since July 15, 2009 due to post-partum psychosis. (Tr. 67-69, 95, 812-819). She later alleged disability due to depression, anxiety, asthma, arthritis, and obesity as well. (See Tr. 106, 845). Her applications were denied initially in March 2010, and upon reconsideration in September 2010. (Tr. 820-23, 824-27; see also Dec. 1; Tr. 14). The plaintiff then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ, which took place on October 18, 2011. (Tr. 66, 828-67). Martinez-Lopez, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (Tr. 828, 833-60). The ALJ also 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 national and regional economies for an individual with the same age, educational background, work experience, and residual functional capacity (" RFC" ) as Martinez-Lopez. (Tr. 861-65).

On January 31, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying the plaintiff's applications for benefits. (Tr. 11-33). Martinez-Lopez then filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Social Security Appeals Council. (Tr. 9-10). On February 21, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review. (Tr. 5-7). Accordingly, the plaintiff has exhausted all of her administrative remedies, and the case is ripe for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

The ALJ's Decision

The ALJ concluded that from July 15, 2009 through the date of his decision on January 31, 2012, Martinez-Lopez " ha[d] not been 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. 14). See also 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). There is no dispute that the ALJ, in reaching his decision that Martinez-Lopez was not disabled, performed the five-step sequential evaluation required by 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520 and 416.920. The procedure resulted in the following analysis, which is detailed further in the ALJ's " Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law." (See Dec. 3-19; Tr. 16-32).

The first inquiry in the five-step evaluation 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 this case, the ALJ found that Martinez-Lopez had not engaged in such activity since July 15, 2009, the alleged onset date of her disability. (Dec. Finding #2; Tr. 16). Therefore, the ALJ proceeded to the second step in the

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sequential analysis.

The second inquiry is whether the claimant has a " severe impairment," meaning an " impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]" 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is deemed not to be disabled and the application for benefits is denied. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Here, the ALJ determined that Martinez-Lopez suffered from two severe mental impairments -- depression and anxiety -- but that her asthma, arthritis and obesity were not severe. (Dec. Finding #3; Tr. 16). The plaintiff challenges this conclusion, and contends that the ALJ erred in evaluating the severity of her physical conditions.

In connection with his finding at step two, the ALJ provided a detailed description of the medical evidence relating to the plaintiff's physical conditions. (Dec. 3-7; Tr. 16-20). In particular, the ALJ reviewed the medical records relating to the plaintiff's history of arthritis and asthma, as well as medical records reflecting the plaintiff's complaints about her weight. (Id.). He also considered the opinion of a State agency physician, R.C. Brown, M.D., who reviewed the plaintiff's medical records and determined that her physical impairments were not severe. (Dec. 4; Tr. 17). In addition, the ALJ considered the plaintiff's testimony regarding the nature and extent of her pain and other symptoms, including the impact of her symptoms on her ability to perform day-to-day activities. (Dec. 5; Tr. 18). Based on his review of the evidence, the ALJ determined that there was no support for a finding that the symptoms caused by the plaintiff's asthma " are of such duration or intensity to interfere with her ability to perform work activities." (Dec. 6; Tr. 19). Accordingly, he determined that her asthma was not severe. (Id.). With respect to the plaintiff's arthritis and obesity, the ALJ rendered the following conclusion:

The medical evidence as a whole does not support a finding that the claimant suffers from symptoms and/or limitations due to arthritis or obesity that are not associated with pregnancy or not controlled with medication when she is not pregnant. I find that the claimant's arthritis and obesity are only severe impairments while she is pregnant, and as such are not expected to last 12 months (20 CFR 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and 416.920(a)(4)(ii)). I give weight to the assessment of Dr. Brown at Exhibit 10F. No treating source has identified greater physical limitation.

(Dec. 7; Tr. 20). Therefore, he determined that those impairments too were not severe for purposes of the disability analysis. (Dec. 3; Tr. 16). For the reasons described below, this court finds that there is substantial support for these findings.

Because the ALJ determined that Martinez-Lopez suffered from severe mental impairments, he proceeded to step three in the sequential analysis. The third inquiry is whether the claimant has an impairment equivalent to a specific list of impairments contained in Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5; 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). At this step, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments. (Dec. Finding #4; Tr. 20). Accordingly, his analysis continued.

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. In the instant case, the ALJ determined as follows with respect to the plaintiff's RFC:

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After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is able to understand and remember simple instructions; she is able to concentrate for 2-hour periods over an 8-hour workday on simple tasks; she is able to interact appropriately with co-workers and supervisors, but should avoid work which requires frequent contact with the general public; and she is able to adapt to changes in the work setting.

(Dec. Finding #5; Tr. 22).

In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ considered the plaintiff's symptoms and the extent to which her symptoms could " reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence[.]" (Dec. 9; Tr. 22). He also considered opinions that had been expressed by several treating and non-treating sources. (Id.). Martinez-Lopez contends that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinions of an advising State agency psychologist, Carol McKenna, Ph.D., and the plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Tony Lim, M.D. For the reasons discussed below, this court disagrees and finds that the ALJ's handling of the opinion evidence was proper.

After explaining the basis for his RFC determination, the ALJ concluded that Martinez-Lopez was unable to perform her past relevant work as a retail cashier, customer service agent, automobile rental agent or gate agent. (Dec. 18; Tr. 31). Consequently, he reached the fifth and last step in the sequential analysis.

The fifth inquiry is whether, given the claimant's RFC, education, work experience and age, the claimant is capable of performing other work. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5; 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). At step five, the Commissioner has the burden " of coming forward with evidence of specific jobs in the national economy that the applicant can still perform." Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Here, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony to conclude that Martinez-Lopez was capable of performing work that exists in significant ...

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