United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
ALLISON D. BURROUGHS U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
Plaintiff Vaughn Jones (“Mr. Jones”) has brought this action pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits. The matter is presently before the Court on the Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment [ECF No. 15], by which Mr. Jones is seeking a remand for the payment of benefits or, alternatively, for further administrative proceedings. The matter is also before the Court on the Commissioner’s Motion to Affirm the Decision [ECF No. 16], by which the Commissioner is seeking an order affirming his decision to deny Mr. Jones’ claim for benefits. At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), in reaching his decision that Mr. Jones was not disabled, erred by: (1) failing to consider the entire psychiatric record in determining the scope of Mr. Jones’ residual functional capacity (“RFC”), (2) improperly relying on testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), and (3) improperly evaluating Mr. Jones’ credibility.
For the reasons explained herein, Plaintiff’s Motion is DENIED and the Commissioner’s Motion is GRANTED.
I. STATEMENT OF FACTS
Mr. Jones was born on December 9, 1966. [R. 35]. He has a high school education and attended college for one year. Id. at 37. At the time of his hearing, he had four children, ranging in age from one month to seventeen years old. Id. at 36. Mr. Jones spent three and one half years in the military and was honorably discharged. Id. at 37-38. Except while serving in the military, Mr. Jones worked as a mason and bricklayer, beginning in approximately 1984 or shortly prior, and continuing up to the date of his alleged disability. Id. at 39-41.
On November 20, 2009, Mr. Jones was the victim of an attempted robbery in the course of which he was stabbed with a knife in various places, including his left arm. Id. at 41-43. Prior to the date of the attempted robbery, he had arthritis in his right knee as a result of an injury suffered in the military. Id. at 43-44. According to Mr. Jones, subsequent to the attempted robbery, two psychiatrists, Doctors Theodore and Dmochowski, have both told him that he is suffering from depression and paranoia in addition to his physical ailments. Id. at 46-47.
Mr. Jones lives with his mother. Id. at 38-39. He is able to take care of himself in terms of dressing, bathing, and the like. Id. at 49. He can walk and stand for long periods of time; use stairs; has normal use of his right hand; and can pick up 50 pounds from the floor. Id. at 52-54. He spends the majority of his day sitting in the house and watching television. Id. at 49, 57. He sees his children on the weekends and spends most of his time with them also watching television. Id. at 51, 56-57. Mr. Jones did not return to work after the attempted robbery, and he has remained out of work since that time. Id. at 41.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Mr. Jones filed an application for SSDI benefits on January 28, 2010, claiming that he had been unable to work since November 20, 2009 as a result of injuries suffered during the attempted robbery. [R. 146-152]. To qualify for SSDI benefits, an individual must become disabled during the period that he is insured by the program. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.131. It is not disputed that Mr. Jones meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act. He was insured from the date of his injury through December 31, 2012. [R. 21]. Mr. Jones’ application was denied initially on May 14, 2010 and upon reconsideration on November 19, 2010. Id. at 20. Subsequently, Mr. Jones requested a hearing before an ALJ. Id. The request was granted and the hearing took place on October 18, 2011. Id. Mr. Jones, represented by attorney Jerad Dupont, appeared and testified at the hearing. Id. at 32, 35-58.
III. THE ALJ’S DECISION
As described above, in order to qualify for SSDI benefits, Mr. Jones had to establish that he was disabled prior to the expiration of his insured status on December 31, 2012. The ALJ concluded that from November 20, 2009 through the date of his decision, November 22, 2011, Mr. Jones 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.” [R. 7-8, 20-21]; see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). It is not disputed that the ALJ, in determining that Mr. Jones was not disabled, applied the five-step sequential evaluation mandated by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The following is a summary of the analysis, which is more fully detailed in the ALJ’s “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.” [R. 9-18, 22-29].
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 Mr. Jones had not engaged in substantial work activity during the period from his alleged onset date of November 20, 2009 through his last insured date of December 31, 2012. [R. 22]. This finding of the ALJ is not disputed.
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 Mr. Jones suffered from four severe impairments, specifically ulnar nerve damage to his left arm, degenerative joint disease in his right knee, depression, and anxiety. [R. 23]. This finding is not disputed.
The third inquiry is whether the claimant has an impairment equivalent to a specific listed impairment 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). The ALJ concluded that Mr. Jones’ impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments. [R. 23]. This finding is also not disputed.
Because the ALJ determined that Mr. Jones’ impairments did not meet or equal any of the listed impairments, he proceeded to the fourth inquiry in the evaluation process which is 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. It is at this point in the analysis that the ALJ determined Mr. Jones’ RFC. Specifically, the ALJ found, “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, ” that
the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) that does not require any crawling and more than occasional pushing, pulling, reaching, handling or fingering with the upper left extremity. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, or work environments that involve unprotected heights, hazardous machinery and loud noises. The claimant is limited to unskilled jobs in a low stress setting with occasional changes, that do not require an assembly line production pace and that do not involve more than occasional ...