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Hurlburt v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 30, 2017

JAMES MICHAEL HURLBURT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (Dkt. Nos. 13 & 17)

          KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         On September 29, 2015, plaintiff James Michael Hurlburt (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), appealing the denial of his claims for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”). Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner's decision denying him such benefits - memorialized in a July 24, 2014 decision by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) - is in error. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred by not finding that his mental impairments of depression and anxiety were severe. Plaintiff has moved for judgment on the pleadings requesting that the Commissioner's decision be reversed, or, in the alternative, remanded for further proceedings (Dkt. No. 13). The Commissioner has moved for an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner (Dkt. No. 17). The parties have consented to this court's jurisdiction (Dkt. No. 12). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. For the following reasons, the court will deny Plaintiff's motion and allow the Commissioner's motion.

         II. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for SSI and SSDI on October 3, 2011, alleging a June 6, 2007 onset of disability due to a left shoulder injury and emphysema (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) at 191-207, 215-224). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration (id. at 119-24, 129-35). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and one was held on April 11, 2014, at which time Plaintiff claimed disability due to a left shoulder injury, diabetes, emphysema, depression, and anxiety (id. at 30-65). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on July 24, 2014, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying Plaintiff's claims (id. at 10-27). The Appeals Council denied review on July 29, 2015, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner (id. at 1-7). This appeal followed.

         III. Legal Standards

         A. Standard for Entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance

         In order to qualify for SSI and SSDI, a claimant must demonstrate that he is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.[1] A claimant is disabled for purposes of SSI and SSDI if he “is unable 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity when he “is 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner evaluates a claimant's impairment under a five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in the regulations promulgated under each statute. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The hearing officer must determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1 to the regulations; (4) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing previous relevant work; and (5) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing any work considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. See id. See also Goodermote v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6-7 (1st Cir. 1982) (describing the five-step process). If the hearing officer determines at any step of the evaluation that the claimant is or is not disabled, the analysis does not continue to the next step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         Before proceeding to steps four and five, the Commissioner must make an assessment of the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which the Commissioner uses at step four to determine whether the claimant can do past relevant work and at step five to determine if the claimant can adjust to other work. See id. “RFC is what an individual can still do despite his or her limitations. RFC is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work- related physical and mental activities.” Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996).

         The claimant has the burden of proof through step four of the analysis, Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7, including the burden to demonstrate RFC. Flaherty v. Astrue, No. 11-11156-TSH, 2013 WL 4784419, at *9 (D. Mass. Sept. 5, 2013) (citing Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004)). At step five, the Commissioner has the burden of showing the existence of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can nonetheless perform. Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7.

         B. Standard of Review

         The District Court may enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the final decision of the Commissioner, with or without remanding for rehearing. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). 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). The court reviews questions of law de novo, but must defer to the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence. Id. (citing Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir.1999)). Substantial evidence exists “‘if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the] 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)). “While ‘substantial evidence' is ‘more than a scintilla, ' it certainly does not approach the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard normally found in civil cases.” Bath Iron Works Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 336 F.3d 51, 56 (1st Cir. 2003) (citing Sprague v. Dir. Office of Workers' Comp. Programs, U.S. Dep't of Labor, 688 F.2d 862, 865 (1st Cir. 1982)). In applying the substantial evidence standard, the court must be mindful that it is the province of the ALJ, and not the courts, to determine issues of credibility, resolve conflicts in the evidence, and draw conclusions from such evidence. Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769. So long as the substantial evidence standard is met, the ALJ's factual findings are conclusive even if the record “arguably could support a different conclusion.” Id. at 770. That said, the Commissioner may not ignore evidence, misapply the law, or judge matters entrusted to experts. Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35.

         IV. Facts

         A. Background

         Plaintiff was 53 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision (A.R. at 21, 191, 198). He has a high school education and previously worked as an electrician and sheet metal mechanic (id. at 219-220). Plaintiff was working as an electrician in February 2007, when he injured his left shoulder on the job (id. at 37-38). He continued to work in a light duty capacity for four months after sustaining the injury, until approximately June 2007, when he had his first shoulder surgery (id. at 38, 55).

         B. Medical Evidence[2]

         1. References to Mental Health in Physician Notes

         On March 10, 2008, Plaintiff was seen by Sharon L. Jarmolowicz, P.A., at Concentra Medical Centers (“CMC”) for pain in his right lower back (id. at 412-415). Jarmolowicz noted that Plaintiff was already being treated at CMC for a left shoulder injury sustained on February 8, 2007, for which he had undergone two surgeries (id.). During the visit, Plaintiff denied any ÔÇťabnormal Psycho/Social ...


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