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Qtyab v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 12, 2016

AICHA QTYAB, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Aicha Qtyab ("Ms. Qtyab") brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Before the Court is Ms. Qtyab's Motion for an Order Reversing the Commissioner's Decision, [ECF No. 11], and Defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner. [ECF No. 15]. At issue is whether the residual functional capacity assessed by the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was supported by substantial evidence. For all the reasons described below, this Court finds that both the residual functional capacity and the ALJ's ultimate disability determination were supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the plaintiffs motion to reverse is DENIED, and the defendant's motion to affirm is ALLOWED.

         I. Background

         Ms. Qtyab is a 43-year-old immigrant from Morocco with no formal education. [Tr. 33, 55, 320].[1] She is divorced and lives with her teenage son in Maiden, Massachusetts. [Tr. 35]. She worked as a dishwasher and food preparation worker from October 1, 2008 through March 1, 2011, and has been unemployed since then. [Tr. 146].

         Ms. Qtyab applied for SSI on September 11, 2012, claiming that she had been disabled since December 31, 2010 due to depression and fatigue. [Tr. 55]. Her claim was initially denied on December 5, 2012, and was denied upon reconsideration on July 23, 2013. [Tr. 75-77, 82-84]. Thereafter, Ms. Qtyab requested and was granted a hearing, which took place on March 18, 2014 before ALJ Constance Carter. [Tr. 25-54]. At the hearing, Ms. Qtyab was represented by counsel and testified with the aid of an Arabic interpreter. [Tr. 25]. Ruth Baruch, an impartial vocational expert, also testified. Id. On March 28, 2014, ALJ Carter issued an opinion denying Ms. Qtyab's claim for SSI benefits. [Tr. 12-20]. She found that from September 11, 2012, the date Ms. Qtyab's SSI application was filed, through the date of her decision, Ms. Qtyab "ha[d] not been under a disability." [Tr. 20].

         In reaching her decision that Ms. Qtyab was not disabled, the ALJ performed the five-step sequential evaluation required by 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The procedure resulted in the following analysis, which is detailed further in the ALJ's "Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law." [Tr. 14-20].

         First, under step one of the five-step inquiry, the ALJ determined that Ms. Qtyab had not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since September 11, 2012. [Tr. 14]. The ALJ then proceeded to step two, under which the ALJ determines if 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. § 416.920(c). The ALJ found that based on Ms. Qtyab's mental health treatment records dating back to 2009, Ms. Qtyab suffered from a severe mood disorder. [Tr. 14]. The ALJ, however, rejected Ms. Qtyab's claim that she had severe physical impairments, [2] and therefore only proceeded to step three with respect to Ms. Qtyab's claimed mental impairment.

         At step three, the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant has an impairment equivalent to a specific listed impairment contained in Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations. See Seavev v. Barnhait 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Here, the ALJ found that the claimant's mental impairment did not meet or medically equal the criteria of listing 12.04, for affective disorders. [Tr. 15-16]. To establish a disability under listing 12.04, a claimant must either (1) satisfy the "paragraph A" and "paragraph B" criteria; or (2) satisfy the "paragraph C" criteria." 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.04. The ALJ determined that because Ms. Qtyab's impairments did not satisfy the "paragraph B"[3] or "paragraph C"[4] criteria, she did not meet or medically equal the criteria of listing 12.04.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ 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. If the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work, then she is not disabled, and the ALJ need not proceed to step five. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The RFC assesses "the most [the claimant] can do despite [her] limitations." 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). "The claimant has the burden of providing evidence to establish how her impairments limit her RFC." Puleio v. Colvin, No. 14-11750-FDS, 2015 WL 5722731, at *11 (D. Mass. Sept. 29, 2015). Here, based on the entire record, the ALJ found that Ms. Qtyab:

[H]as the residual functional capacity to perform work at all exertional levels involving simple, routine tasks; involving occasional decision making; occasional changes in the work setting; involving no interaction with the general public; and work around co-workers, but only occasional interaction with co-workers.

[Tr. 16]. Relying on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that a person with this RFC could perform Ms. Qtyab's past relevant work as a dishwasher/cook helper. [Tr. 20]. She found that "[i]n comparing the claimant's residual functional capacity with the physical and mental demands of this [past relevant] work ... the claimant is able to perform it as actually and generally performed." Id. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Qtyab was not disabled.[5]

         In her motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision, Ms. Qtyab only challenges step four of the ALJ's analysis. She claims that the ALJ's RFC determination and her finding that Ms. Qtyab could perform her past relevant work were not supported by substantial evidence. [ECF No. 12 at 5-8].

         II. Legal Standard

         This Court has jurisdiction to review decisions of the Commissioner pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Section 205(g) provides that an individual may obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner by instituting a civil action in federal district court. Id. Under sentence four of Section 205(g), the court has the power "to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner . . . with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." Id. A court's decision under sentence four, however, can be based only on a review of the administrative record of proceedings before the Commissioner. See Whitzell v. Astrue, 792 F.Supp.2d 143, 147 (D. Mass. 2011) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). If a claimant presents new evidence to the court that was not contained within the administrative record, the court may not consider it. "If additional evidence is to be considered, it must be by way of remand[]" pursuant to sentence six of Section 205(g). Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1503 (10th Cir. 1992); 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g) ("The ...

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