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Mason v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 29, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Mark Anthony Mason appeals from a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill (''the Commissioner'') upholding the ruling of the Administrative Law Judge (''ALJ'') that rejected his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (''SSDI''). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and that he erred by: (1) improperly substituting his own interpretation of medical tests instead of adopting the findings of a state agency physician; (2) failing to afford controlling weight to plaintiff's treating physicians' opinions; and (3) omitting key limitations in his residual functioning capacity (ARFC'') assessment when presenting his hypothetical questions to the vocational expert (''VE'').

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI on May 12, 2014, alleging disability due to various physical conditions beginning November 23, 2013. His claims were first denied on August 14, 2014, and again upon reconsideration later in 2014. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing was held on June 23, 2015. At the hearing, plaintiff and a VE testified.

         A. Applicable Statutes and Regulations

         To show entitlement to SSDI benefits, a claimant must show that he is 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). To meet this definition, a claimant must have an impairment, or impairments, of such severity that it renders him "not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his 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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         The ALJ analyzes whether a claimant is disabled using an established "five-step sequential evaluation process." See 20 C.F.R.§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)B(v). Under that 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). If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, the ALJ considers third whether the impairment or impairments meets or equals an entry in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1, and meets the duration requirement. If so, then the claimant is considered disabled. If not, the ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC, which is "the most [a claimant] can still do despite his limitations, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ then moves to step four and determines whether the claimant's RFC allows him to perform his past relevant work. If the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled. If the claimant does not, the ALJ decides, at step five, whether the claimant can do other work in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the claimant can, he is not considered disabled; otherwise, he 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).

         B. The Initial Rejection and the ALJ's Decision

         In a July 22, 2015, written decision, the ALJ denied plaintiff's SSDI application. He first concluded that plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. See 42 U.S.C. § 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 his disability. Next, at step two, he found that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “neuropathy of the right arm, headaches, depression, and anxiety.” R.[1] at 12; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the ALJ found 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 determined plaintiff's RFC:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1576(b) except that he can only occasionally push and pull with the right upper extremity; never climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds; could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, crouch, and crawl; he could occasionally reach, including overhead reaching on the right side; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, and hazards such as the operational control of moving machinery and unprotected heights. Further, he could perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a low stress job with no changes in the work setting, and only occasional interaction with coworkers and no tandem tasks, and work with only occasional supervision. Please note occasional means less than 1/3 of the time.

R. at 14. The ALJ explained that although plaintiff's Amedically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms . . . the objective medical evidence and the record as a whole do not support that the [plaintiff] experiences limitations that are as significant as alleged. Id. at 15.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ concluded, relying on the VE's testimony, that the claimant was unable to perform past relevant work as an auto dealership assistant service manager given his RFC. However, the ALJ determined based on the VE's testimony that "considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.'' Id. at 23. The VE further testified that the claimant could perform light, unskilled jobs such as a ...

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