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Figueroa v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 21, 2015

ADA FIGUEROA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



I. Introduction

Plaintiff Ada Figueroa ("Figueroa") has brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (the "Act"), challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Before the Court is the plaintiff's "Motion for Judgment" [Dkt. 14], seeking a reversal of the denial of benefits or, in the alternative, a remand for further administrative proceedings. Also before the Court is the defendant's "Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision" [Dkt. 24], seeking an order affirming the denial of benefits. At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), in reaching his decision that Figueroa was not disabled, erred by: failing to give appropriate weight to the opinions of her treating physicians; finding that she was not fully credible in her subjective complaints; failing to properly assess the combined impact of her impairments; and failing to take into account the deleterious effects of her chronic headaches.

As described below, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the plaintiff's motion for judgment is DENIED, and the defendant's motion to affirm is ALLOWED.

II. Background[1]

A. Summary of Relevant Facts

Figueroa is a 41-year-old woman who claims to be disabled by a combination of mental and physical impairments, including anxiety-related disorder, fibromyalgia, and chronic headaches. [Tr. 20; Pl.'s Mot. at 4.] She was born on May 2, 1974. [Tr. 25, 701.] She was 28 years old as of her alleged disability onset date of September 23, 2002, and 37 years old as of July 13, 2011, when she applied for Social Security benefits. [Tr. 18.] She dropped out of school at age 12 but later earned a GED. [Tr. 143, 232, 701-02.] She previously worked as a cashier and then part-time as a home health attendant for her aunt. [Tr. 25, 143, 184, 733.] The home health attendant job, her most recent position, included cooking and some cleaning. [Tr. 704.] She quit that position in approximately 2002, when she was in her late-twenties, because she could not get along with her grandmother (who lived with her aunt), and became depressed. [Tr. 143, 184, 703-04.] Since leaving her job as a home health attendant in 2002, she has not returned to the workforce, although she applied for (but was not offered) a job at a Dunkin Donuts after she stopped working for her aunt. [Tr. 704-05.]

The ALJ found Figueroa to have three severe impairments within the meaning of the Social Security law and regulations: anxiety-related disorder, fibromyalgia, and chronic headaches. [Tr. 20; Pl.'s Mot. at 4.] She also has asthma and hypertension, but the ALJ found that these impairments are under adequate control and are therefore not considered to be severe [Tr. 20], a finding that the plaintiff does not contest in this action.[2]

As of January 13, 2013, the date of her administrative hearing before the ALJ, Figueroa had not worked in more than ten years and was living in an apartment with her three adult children. [Tr. 703, 715-16.] She reported spending her days primarily sleeping and watching television in her bedroom, venturing outside the apartment only infrequently. [Tr. 709, 714, 722.] Her daughter did most of the household chores, but Figueroa occasionally went food shopping (accompanied by one of her children), did light cooking, and swept the floor. [Tr. 716, 726.] She reported experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts. [Tr. 728-29.]

Additional facts relevant to the Court's analysis are addressed below where appropriate.

B. Procedural History

On July 13, 2011, Figueroa filed applications for SSI and SSDI, alleging that she had been unable to work since September 23, 2002 due to a number of impairments, including: anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, muscle spasms, migraines, asthma, high blood pressure, neck problems, lower back problems, and memory problems. [Tr. 87-93, 624-34.] Her application was denied initially on September 21, 2011 [Tr. 51-57, 645-53], and upon reconsideration on January 20, 2012. [Tr. 61-63, 667-69.]

On January 13, 2013, at Figueroa's request, an administrative hearing was held before an ALJ, at which the plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified. [Tr. 697-741.] The ALJ then elicited testimony from a Vocational Expert ("VE") [Tr. 732-36], who was also examined by the plaintiff's counsel. [Tr. 736-41.] The testimony of the plaintiff and the VE is described in greater detail below (Section II-D).

On February 20, 2013, following the hearing, the ALJ issued his written decision, finding that Figueroa was not disabled from September 23, 2002 through the date of the decision and thus, that she was not entitled to benefits. [Tr. 18-26.] On April 8, 2014, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to judicial review in federal district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). [Tr. 7-9.]

C. Statutory and Regulatory Framework; Five-Step Process to Evaluate Disability Claims

"The Social Security Administration is the federal agency charged with administering both the Social Security disability benefits program, which provides disability insurance for covered workers, and the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides assistance for the indigent aged and disabled." Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 423 & 1381a).

The Act 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.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1) & 1382c(a)(3)(A). The inability must be severe, such that the claimant is unable to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505-404.1511; see also Ross v. Astrue, No. CIV.A. 09-11392-DJC, 2011 WL 2110217, at *2 (D. Mass. May 26, 2011).

When evaluating a disability claim under the Act, the Commissioner uses a five-step process, which the First Circuit has explained as follows:

All five steps are not applied to every applicant, as the determination may be concluded at any step along the process. The steps are: 1) if the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity, the application is denied; 2) if the applicant does not have, or has not had within the relevant time period, a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the application is denied; 3) if the impairment meets the conditions for one of the "listed" impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the application is granted; 4) if the applicant's "residual functional capacity" is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work, then the application is denied; 5) if the applicant, given his or her residual functional capacity, education, work experience, and age, is unable to do any other work, the application is granted.

Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).

D. Administrative Hearing

1. Figueroa's Testimony[3]

At the administrative hearing held on January 13, 2013, Figueroa testified that she last worked in a paid job approximately ten years earlier, taking care of her aunt on a part-time basis. [Tr. 702-03.] She quit because she "started getting really depressed" and her grandmother "was being real mean to me." [Tr. 704.] She stated, "I couldn't function at my job, so I just quit." [Id.] She had not applied for any jobs recently and stated, "I don't think I can function at a job... because I'm so tired" and "my body hurts." [Id.]

With respect to her mental impairments, Figueroa testified that she sometimes does not bathe, she sleeps a lot during the day, and she spends virtually all of her time in her bedroom ("I literally live in my bedroom"). [Tr. 709.] She has trouble sleeping at night. [Tr. 724.] She typically stays in her pajamas all day while at home and sometimes also wears pajamas out of the house to go to medical appointments. [Tr. 714.] She has not driven a car in years because she gets "scared" and has panic attacks. [Tr. 715.] She gets a ride to all of her medical appointments from the father of her daughter. [Tr. 723.] She takes a number of medications for anxiety, sleep, concentration, and pain. [Tr. 717-21.] These medications have the side effect of making her sleepy. [Tr. 717-20.] She reported watching television frequently and, if interested in a program, being able to follow and understand it. [Tr. 722.] However, she would not be able to watch a full movie from start to finish because she would fall asleep. [Tr. 727.] She does not participate in family gatherings because she lacks energy and interest. [Tr. 725.] She feels anxious and "desperate" in public places or around other people. [Tr. 728.] She has experienced suicidal thoughts and flashbacks to past events in her life. [Tr. 729.]

With respect to her pain and physical limitations, Figueroa stated that she could walk a quarter of the length of a football field before she would have to stop and rest for 15 or 20 minutes due to pain in her back, knees, and neck. [Tr. 710.] She experiences pain in her "butt" when sitting due to fibromyalgia and frequently has to alternate sitting and standing. [Tr. 711.] She could not sit for more than an hour at a time because of her back pain. [Tr. 712.] She reported that she could lift a gallon of milk but would be unable to lean down to lift it from the floor; at a store, someone would have to hand her the milk because of her inability to lean. [Tr. 712-13.] She also would not be able to bend at the waist and touch her toes. [Tr. 713-14.] She has problems reaching over her head due to arthritis. [Tr. 739.] She does not use any assistive devices such as a cane, walker, or wheelchair. [Tr. 713.] She reported taking asthma medication twice a day, which prevents her from getting asthma attacks. [Tr. 730-31.]

2. The Vocational Expert's Testimony

The ALJ then examined a VE, who described Figueroa's past work experience and responded to the ALJ's hypothetical questions designed to determine whether jobs exist in the national and regional economies for an individual of comparable age, educational background, work experience, and residual functional capacity ("RFC") as Figueroa. [Tr. 732-36.] The ALJ presented the VE with two hypothetical scenarios.

First, the ALJ asked the VE to assume a person of the plaintiff's age, education, and past work experience, who was limited to performing light work. This hypothetical claimant would be allowed to alternate sitting and standing at will and would be required to perform only occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling. The claimant would need to avoid concentrated exposure to wetness, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, and gases. Work would be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, with only occasional interaction with the public and co-workers. [Tr. 733-34.] The VE testified that with these limitations, Figueroa's past relevant work could not be performed. [Tr. 734.] However, the jobs of inspector, office cleaner, and soldering assembler could all be performed, and these jobs exist in significant numbers in the state and national economies. [Tr. 734-35.] Second, the ALJ changed the hypothetical to reflect a sedentary capacity, with the same additional limitations as in the first scenario. [Tr. 735.] The VE testified that such an individual could work as an office helper, bench worker, and electronic packer, all jobs existing in significant numbers in the state and national economies. [Tr. 735-36.]

Figueroa's counsel, too, examined the VE, modifying the ALJ's first hypothetical involving light work by adding further limitations. [Tr. 736-41.] In particular, he asked the VE to add a limitation on overhead reaching. [Tr. 740.] The VE testified that the job of office cleaner required only occasional overhead reaching (less than one-third of the time), and the other jobs of inspector and soldering assembler did not require any overhead reaching. [Id.] Figueroa's counsel also asked the VE to add a further limitation on kneeling, crouching, crawling, or stooping (rather than the "occasional" kneeling, crouching, crawling, or stooping ...

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