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Jordan v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 18, 2017

MARITZA JORDAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM

          Leo T. Sorokin United States District Judge

         For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse (Doc. 20) and ALLOWS Defendant's Motion to Affirm (Doc. 25) the denial of Plaintiff's applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On June 7, 2013, Plaintiff Maritza Jordan filed applications for DIB and SSI. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 209-225. At the time, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of May 31, 2013. Id. at 210, 217. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's applications initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 163, 166, 171-76.

         At Plaintiff's request, on September 10, 2014, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Id. at 177-78, 191. At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by a “student attorney, ” who was accompanied by a supervising attorney. Id. at 63. On the date of the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date of disability (“AOD”) from May 31, 2013, to January 1, 2014. Id. at 242.

         On November 20, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2014, through the date of the decision. Id. at 51.

         On January 20, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the ALJ's decision, as well as various additional evidence, to the SSA's Appeals Council. Id. at 12. On July 10, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, finding no “basis for changing the Administrative Law Judge's decision.” Id. at 1-2. With respect to the additional evidence Plaintiff submitted, the Appeals Council found it did “not show a reasonable probability that, either alone or when considered with the other evidence of record, would change the outcome of the decision.” Id. at 2 (citation omitted).

         On September 8, 2015, Plaintiff filed the instant action. Doc. 1. On May 9, 2016, Plaintiff filed the instant Motion to Reverse. Doc. 20. On July 20, 2016, Defendant filed the instant Motion to Affirm. Doc. 25. On August 16, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Reply. Doc. 29. On September 13, 2016, Defendant filed a Sur-Reply. Doc. 33.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Entitlement to Benefits

         A claimant's entitlement to DIB or SSI turns on whether she has a “disability, ” defined by the Social Security Act as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505.[1] Such impairment must be sufficiently severe, rendering the claimant unable to engage in any of her previous work or any other gainful activity that exists in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505.

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether an individual is disabled and thus whether the application for Social Security benefits should be approved. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see also Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity, she is not disabled and the application is denied. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At step two, if the claimant does not have, or has not had, within the relevant time period, a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, she is not disabled and the application is denied. Id. At step three, if the impairment meets the conditions of one of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations, the claimant is disabled and the application is approved. Id. At step four, where the impairment does not meet the conditions of one of the listed impairments, the Commissioner determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. If the claimant's RFC is such that she can still perform past relevant work, she is not disabled and the application is denied. Id. At step five, if the claimant, given her RFC, education, work experience and age is unable to do any other work within the national economy, she is disabled and the application is approved. Id.

         The claimant bears the burden of proof for the first four steps, and must furnish medical or other evidence of the existence of a disability. Britt v. Colvin, 125 F.Supp.3d 349, 353 (D. Mass. 2015). “At the fifth step of the analysis, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is capable of performing jobs available in the national economy.” Id. (citing Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001)). The ALJ must consider all of the evidence in the case record, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(3), and resolve any conflicts in the evidence. Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981). However, the ALJ need not “directly address[] in [her] written decision every piece of evidence” or make “explicit credibility findings as to each bit of conflicting testimony, so long as [her] factual findings as a whole show that [she] implicitly resolved such conflicts.” N.L.R.B. v. Beverly Enters.-Mass., Inc., 174 F.3d 13, 26 (1st Cir.1999) (citations, alterations, and internal quotation marks omitted); accord Blackette v. Colvin, 52 F.Supp.3d 101, 119 (D. Mass. 2014).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court may affirm, modify or reverse the Commissioner's decision upon review of the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, judicial review is limited “to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). Even where the record “arguably could justify a different conclusion, ” the Court must accept the Commissioner's findings of fact as conclusive if they are “supported by substantial evidence.” See Whitzell v. Astrue, 792 F.Supp.2d 143, 148 (D. Mass. 2011) (quoting Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987)) (internal quotation marks omitted); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence exists “if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the Commissioner's] conclusion.” Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff makes three arguments for reversal: (1) at step two, the ALJ and Appeals Council improperly failed to include her rotator cuff impingement as a severe impairment; (2) the ALJ “made several errors in the weight that he attributed to the opinions offered into evidence”; and (3) the ALJ failed to include Plaintiff's exertional limitations in the ...


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