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Mantilla v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 13, 2016

ADA H. MANTILLA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant.


          F. Dennis Saylor IV United States District Judge

         This is an appeal of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying plaintiff’s second application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. Although the Social Security Administration granted plaintiff’s subsequent third application for SSI benefits, she seeks to have the earlier decision vacated and remanded to establish an earlier onset date for her disability. She appeals the Commissioner’s denial of her second application on the grounds that the Administrative Law Judge’s “Step 5” finding and the denial of her application were erroneous. Specifically, she contends that the Administrative Law Judge (1) should have been bound by a prior determination of her residual functional capacity and (2) improperly relied on a vocational witness’s testimony.

         Plaintiff has moved to reverse the decision of the Commissioner and defendant has cross-moved to affirm the decision. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed.

         I. Procedural History

         Ada Mantilla filed her first application for SSI benefits on December 16, 2008. That application was denied on April 14, 2011, and the Appeals Council upheld the denial of benefits on August 25, 2011.

         Mantilla’s second application for SSI, which is at issue in this case, was filed on September 20, 2011. It alleged a disability onset date of June 1, 2001. That application was denied on February 22, 2012, and again on January 2, 2013, upon rehearing. On January 23, 2013, she requested a hearing, and on October 22, she amended her disability onset date to September 20, 2011. The hearing was held on October 31, 2013. She submitted a post-hearing brief, in which she raised an objection to the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert regarding her residual functional capacity assessment. On December 26, 2013, the ALJ overruled the objection and denied the application.

         Mantilla filed a third application, which was ultimately granted. She now appeals the denial of the second application in order to establish an earlier onset date for her disability.

         II. Background

         Ada Mantilla was born on November 4, 1961. She was 49 years old when she filed the present application on September 20, 2011. She has “limited education.” (R. at 36). Before filing her application for SSI benefits, Mantilla had worked as a cashier, a clothes hanger, and a substitute cafeteria worker. (R. at 116). After filing for SSI benefits, she reported being able to cook, take care of her four-year-old grandson, and attend to her own personal hygiene. (R. at 27).

         A. Medical History

         In April 2011, the ALJ who handled Mantilla’s first SSI application found that she had four severe impairments: chronic knee pain, chronic back pain, depression, and anxiety. (R. at 112). In December 2013, the ALJ who handled her second application also found four severe impairments: osteoarthritis, subjective arthralgias, depression, and anxiety. At that time, the ALJ also found that she had been treated for an ankle impairment, bradycardia, tendinitis, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but found that those conditions were not severe.

         1.Physical Impairments

         Mantilla saw her primary-care provider for bilateral knee pain in July 2010, and was given non-narcotic pain medication. (R. at 28). She saw the same doctor in August 2011 for pain in her left ankle; the doctor found that there was tenderness in the ankle, but no swelling, and that she had a full range of motion in the ankle and a normal gait. (Id.). In November 2011, she saw a different doctor and reported a history of low back pain and bilateral knee pain. At the time, she was not taking pain medication. (Id.). For about three months starting in November 2011, a chiropractor treated her for back, neck, and leg pain. (Id.).

         Mantilla saw Nurse Practitioner Kristin Proverb in December 2011, reporting that she felt bilateral knee pain and that both of her knees were giving way. (Id.). She also reported that she had been seeing a chiropractor regarding aches in her upper body. (Id.). Nurse Proverb found that Mantilla had a normal gait and full range of motion in the hips, knees, and ankles, but also that she had a slight effusion on the right knee, “moderate crepitus over the right patella with knee flexion and extension, minimal over the left knee, ” and “discrete pain with patella compression with weakness of the VMO musculature bilaterally.” (R. at 29). She was also found to have “end-stage patellofemoral osteoarthritis of the right knee and moderate osteoarthritis of the patellofemoral of the left knee” on x-rays. (Id.). She went to physical therapy three times after that appointment. (Id.).

         Mantilla saw an orthopedic specialist in October 2012 for knee pain. (Id.). At that time, the specialist found tenderness in both knees and slight crepitus on the right knee. (Id.). He also found bilateral grind and inhibition. (R. at 30). The results of x-rays “were consistent with patellofemoral arthrosis and osteophystic changes.” (Id.). She was prescribed medication and referred to physical therapy, which she attended twice. (Id.). Follow-up examinations in January and May 2013 continued to show the same results. (Id.). At another follow-up examination in July 2013, she had increased tenderness in her left knee and reduced internal rotation of her hips. (Id.). She was again referred to physical therapy, which she attended twice. (Id.).

         2. Mental Impairments

         In January 2011, Mantilla went to Arbor Counseling for an initial evaluation of her mental status. She was assessed with major depressive disorder with moderate symptoms. (R. at 32). At a follow-up visit in August 2011, it was determined that while she was taking medications she did not show anxiety, depression, or sleep problems, and that her depressive symptoms were stable. (R. at 33). At some point in October 2011, she stopped taking her medications. In November 2011, a registered nurse diagnosed depressive disorder, prescribed medication, and instructed her to continue therapy.

         In February 2012, a psychologist again diagnosed depressive disorder with moderate symptoms. At a follow-up examination in April 2012, the psychologist found that the compulsive hand washing she had experienced had decreased and that she was calmer than she had been at her examination in February, but she also reported some panic attacks. (R. at 34). In April 2012, her primary-care provider concluded that she was under a lot of stress and not eating well, which may have contributed to weight loss. She had follow-up appointments in May, June, and July 2012, at which her mental symptoms were stable. At a counselling appointment in July 2012, she displayed fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, ...

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