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Thayer v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 31, 2014

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


KENNETH P. NEIMAN, Magistrate Judge.

Justin Charles Thayer ("Plaintiff") brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Presently before the court is Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings and the Commissioner's motion to affirm.

The parties have consented to this court's jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); FED. R. CIV. P. 73. For the following reasons, the court will deny Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings and, accordingly, allow the Commissioner's motion to affirm.


The parties are well aware of the factual and procedural history of this case, the standard of review, and the applicable five-step sequential analysis.

Plaintiff asserts that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") committed three substantial errors. First, Plaintiff questions the ALJ's residual functioning capacity ("RFC") assessment, which, he says, suffers from missteps made when assigning little if any weight to Plaintiff's treating sources and, in any event, lacks sufficiently detailed factual support. Second, Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's credibility determination, which he argues is not adequately supported. Third, Plaintiff objects to the ALJ's reliance on the testimony of the Vocational Expert ("VE"), not only because it was based on what Plaintiff believes to be an inappropriate RFC but because it failed to fully account for the limitations the ALJ actually identified.

For her part, the Commissioner asserts that the ALJ's RFC and credibility assessments were supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, the VE testimony was based on a proper analysis and did not need to reflect limitations identified in the ALJ's preliminary findings. For the following reasons, the court agrees with the Commissioner.

A. RFC Assessment

1. Treating Physicians

Underlying Plaintiff's RFC challenge is his argument that the ALJ improperly and insufficiently analyzed the proper weight to be given to his treating sources. The ALJ gave "little weight" to three of Plaintiff's treating sources and, in contrast, gave greater weight to the Department of Disability Services ("DDS") doctors who reviewed Plaintiff's medical records. In the court's view, there was no error.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have adopted two of his treating physicians' opinions, whereas the Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly accorded them little weight. Dr. Louis Strauss diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic low back pain after noting tenderness to palpation and, on one occasion, reduced reflexes in his knees. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 455, 456, 559, 616.) After treating Plaintiff's pain for a year, Dr. Strauss opined that, in essence, Plaintiff did not have the residual functioning capacity to work. (A.R. 509-513.) Dr. Aaron Leavitt, the second of the two phsyicians, signed on to the report of Susan Schwartz, a mental health counselor who treated Plaintiff for several months. The report indicated that Plaintiff was markedly limited in matters of attention, focus and professionalism and moderately limited in, among other areas, social behavior and following routines. Ms. Schwartz assigned Plaintiff a Global Assessment Functioning ("GAF") score of 53.[1] (A.R. 674-676.)

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have given these treating physicians' opinions controlling weight because they were both consistent with the record and based on objective evidence. This argument, however, misunderstands the nature of the inquiry to be made by the court at this stage of the proceedings. Under the substantial evidence standard, however reasonable Plaintiff's desired outcome may be, he may only prevail if he also persuades the court that the administrative law judge's conclusion was not. Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999). In effect, the court must review the totality of the evidentiary record to see if a reasonable mind could find it adequate to support the administrative law judge's decision. See Rodriguez v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

An administrative law judge may only give controlling weight to a physician's opinion if it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2) and 416.927(c)(2) (emphasis added). Conversely, an administrative law judge must give less weight to a treating source's opinion that does not meet those requirements, but still must provide "good reasons" for the ultimate weight determination. Id . See also Guyton v. Apfel, 20 F.Supp.2d 156, 167 (D. Mass. 1998) (listing factors to consider).

Here, the ALJ found Plaintiff to be impaired by "facet arthropathy with back pain, headaches, trochanteric bursitis, anxiety, [and] depression." (A.R. 16.) These impairments came to light after Plaintiff, who was 32 at the time of the hearing, was rear-ended in an automobile accident. (A.R. 18.) After the accident, Plaintiff went to the emergency room for back and neck pain where he was diagnosed with a sprain and strain and prescribed painkillers. (A.R. 299.) Over the next two years he saw several specialists for self-reported pain, cognitive, and psychological impairments. ( See (A.R. 327) (listing nine of Plaintiff's subjective complaints: headache pain from 5 to 9 on a scale of 1-10; focus; organization; memory; dizziness; language problems; anxiety, depression, and irritability; emotional distress, and ...

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