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Cotto v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 21, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration



         Plaintiff Awilda Cotto appeals from a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) upholding the ruling of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that rejected her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to appropriately consider her nonexertional impairments; (2) failing to adequately consider a nurse practitioner's opinion; (3) misusing the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”); (4) concluding that her impairments did not meet or equal the musculoskeletal impairments “disorders of the spine” and “major dysfunction(s) of a joint”; and (5) reaching a decision that was not supported by substantial evidence.

         Because I conclude that the ALJ did not commit such errors and his decision was supported by substantial evidence, Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand the Decision of the Commissioner (Docket # 18) is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner (Docket # 21) is ALLOWED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI and SSI on March 6, 2012, alleging disability due to various physical conditions beginning January 6, 2012.[2] Her claims were first denied on May 3, 2012, and again upon reconsideration later in 2012. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing was held on November 13, 2013. At the hearing, plaintiff and a VE testified.

         A. Applicable Statutes and Regulations

         To receive SSDI or SSI benefits, a claimant must be unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . 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. 1382c(a)(3)(A).[3] The impairment or impairments must be “of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).[4]

         The ALJ analyzes whether a claimant is disabled by using an established “five-step sequential evaluation process.” See 20 C.F.R.§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). Under this framework, the ALJ first determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful work activity. If not, then at step two, the ALJ decides whether the claimant has a “severe” medical impairment or impairments, which means the impairment “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, then the ALJ considers, third, whether the impairment or impairments meets or equals an entry in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and meets the duration requirement. If so, then the claimant is considered disabled. If not, then the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functioning capacity (“RFC”), which is “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ then moves to step four and determines whether the claimant's RFC allows her to perform her past relevant work. If the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. If the claimant does not, then the ALJ decides, at step five, whether the claimant can do other work in light of her RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the claimant can, she is not considered disabled; otherwise, she is. “Once the applicant has met his or her burden at Step 4 to show that he or she is unable to do past work due to the significant limitation, the Commissioner then has the burden, at Step 5, of coming forward with evidence of specific jobs in the national economy that the applicant can still perform.” Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(f), 404.1560(c)(2), 416.912(f), 416.960(c)(2).

         B. The Initial Rejection and the ALJ's Decision

         In a January 15, 2014, written decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. The ALJ first concluded that plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) & 423. Then, he structured his decision around the five-step sequential evaluation process. At the first step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of her disability. Next, at step two, he found that she has a number of severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, disease of the muscle, ligament and fascia, right wrist pain, and obesity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Nonetheless, he determined at step three that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Before moving to step four, the ALJ found:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) involving standing or walking at least two hours in an eight hour day; sitting with normal breaks, about six hours in an eight hour work day; involving the option to alternate sitting and standing every ten minutes; involving the ability to occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; no climbing of ladders; frequent ability to push and pull with both lower extremities; occasional ability to handle, finger, and feel with right hands; and involving avoidance of moderate exposure to hazards, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation.

Docket # 15-2, at 18. He explained that although plaintiff “alleges she is unable to work in any capacity . . . this is not supported by the objective medical evidence of record.” Id. Specifically, he cited claimant's ability to perform a variety of daily activities, including caring for her personal needs, preparing meals, conducting light household chores, grocery shopping, walking, and managing her finances.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work as a daycare teacher's aide given her RFC. However, based on the VE's testimony, he found “that, considering [her] age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity, [she] is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. at 22. The VE had testified that plaintiff could perform sedentary occupations such as surveillance system monitor, data examination clerk, call out operator, addressor, and appointment clerk. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled.

         C. The Appeal

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Appeals Council, which denied review on April 12, 2015. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff now seeks reversal of the final determination under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 1383(c)(3).

         II. Standard of Review

         The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if based on the correct legal standard and supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Seavey, 276 F.3d at 9. Substantial evidence includes “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). So long as the Commissioner's determinations are supported by substantial evidence, they must be affirmed, “even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion.” Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987) (per curiam). Further, resolving credibility issues “and the drawing of permissible inference from evidentiary facts are the prime responsibility of the [Commissioner].” Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981) (quoting Rodriguez v. Celebrezze, 349 F.2d 494, 496 (1st Cir. 1965)). Questions of law are reviewed de novo. Seavey, 276 F.3d at 9.

         III. Discussion

         A. Plaintiff's Challenge to the ALJ's Consideration of Her Nonexertional Impairments

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ failed to properly account for her nonexertional impairments when determining that she was not disabled. Specifically, she claims that the ALJ did not appropriately consider her mental impairment, obesity, and chronic pain.

         1. Mental Impairment

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's analysis should have considered that she suffered from depression. She says that her medical records indicate that she was diagnosed with depression and given antidepressant medication. In addition, plaintiff points to her testimony at the hearing before the ALJ that she was seeing a counselor for depression. Because of this evidence, plaintiff argues that the ALJ was ...

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