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Morrison v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 15, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant,




         The plaintiff, Brenda L. Morrison (“Morrison”), has brought this action pursuant to sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), in order to challenge the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her claims for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. The matter is before the court on the “Plaintiff's Motion for an Order Reversing or Remanding the Decision of the Commissioner” (Docket No. 14), by which the plaintiff requests that the court reverse the decision to deny her claims for benefits or, alternatively, remand the matter to the Social Security Administration for further administrative proceedings. It is also before the court on the “Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision” (Docket No. 16), by which the Commissioner is seeking an order upholding her determination that Morrison is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, and is therefore not entitled to SSI or SSDI benefits. At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), in reaching his decision that Morrison was not disabled, erred by failing to give controlling weight to the opinions of Morrison's primary care physician, Sofia Chu, M.D., regarding the limiting effects of the plaintiff's physical impairments. Also at issue is whether the ALJ's findings regarding the plaintiff's residual functional capacity, and in particular his assessment of Morrison's credibility, are supported by substantial evidence. As detailed below, this court finds that the ALJ committed no error, and that his decision must be upheld on appeal. Therefore, and for all the reasons described herein, the plaintiff's motion to reverse or remand is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion to affirm is ALLOWED.


         Morrison was born on April 6, 1961, and was 51 years old at the time she applied for Social Security benefits. (Tr. 146, 153). She has a bachelor's degree in psychology, which she received in 1984, and a long work history as both an artist and an office worker. (Tr. 31, 179). Specifically, during the time period from January 1993 to August 2012, Morrison was self-employed as a glass artist, and ran a business with her husband creating and selling jewelry and various household goods. (Tr. 32-33, 179). Additionally, during the time period from April 1993 to December 2006, Morrison worked as a bookkeeper and office manager for a printing company, where she was responsible for supervising a staff of 20 people and was earning an annual salary of $30, 000. (Tr. 33, 179, 196).

         The record reveals that Morrison stopped working on August 10, 2012, when she was admitted to the Quincy Medical Center after complaining of shortness of breath. (Tr. 247, 587, 618-22). She was diagnosed with bilateral pulmonary emboli and severe anemia, and remained hospitalized until August 20, 2012. (Tr. 588-89). During her hospitalization, Morrison received blood transfusions and iron to treat her anemia. (Tr. 34, 588). She also was given anticoagulation therapy and an inferior vena cava filter to treat her pulmonary emboli. (Tr. 34-35, 588). Although Morrison's anemia has resolved, she is expected to remain on coumadin for the remainder of her life in order to address her pulmonary condition. (Tr. 346, 353).

         In addition to anemia and pulmonary emboli, the plaintiff has a history of morbid obesity, edema, GERD and obstructive sleep apnea. (Tr. 582, 719). Moreover, in November 2013, Morrison was referred to a rheumatologist, Michael York, M.D., due to her ongoing complaints of fatigue and diffuse pain. (Tr. 745-48). Dr. York conducted laboratory testing, and gave Morrison a working diagnosis of fibromyalgia complicated by obstructive sleep apnea and benign joint hypermobility syndrome. (Tr. 732-52). However, there is no indication that this diagnosis has ever been confirmed. The plaintiff claims that her persistent fatigue, chest pain and shortness of breath, combined with poor concentration and the inability to perform tasks on a consistent basis, preclude her from carrying out any type of gainful work activity. (Tr. 181-82, 248-49).

         Procedural History

         On December 17, 2012 and January 3, 2013, Morrison completed applications for SSDI and SSI, claiming that she had been unable to work since August 10, 2012 due to pulmonary emboli, extreme anemia, shortness of breath, chest pain and persistent weakness. (Tr. 146-63, 178). Her applications were denied initially on April 3, 2013, and upon reconsideration on August 7, 2013. (Tr. 61-62, 87-88). Morrison then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ, which took place on July 16, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Tr. 26-48, 106-07, 120-25). The plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (Tr. 31-44). The ALJ also obtained testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), who described Morrison's vocational background based on her past work experience, and responded to hypothetical questions that were designed to determine whether jobs exist in the national and regional economies for an individual with the same age, educational background, work experience and residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as the plaintiff. (Id. at 44-46). On August 20, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Morrison's claims for benefits. (Tr. 7-20).

         Subsequently, Morrison filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Social Security Appeals Council. (Tr. 6). On September 30, 2015, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review. (Tr. 1-3). Accordingly, the plaintiff has exhausted all of her administrative remedies and the case is ripe for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ concluded that from August 10, 2012 through the date of his decision on August 20, 2014, Morrison “ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, ” which defines “disability” as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” (Dec. 1 and Finding #7; Tr. 10, 19). See also 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). There is no dispute that the ALJ, in reaching his decision that Morrison was not disabled, performed the five-step sequential evaluation required by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. The procedure resulted in the following analysis, which is further detailed in the ALJ's “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.” (See Dec. 3-10, Tr. 12-19).

         The first inquiry in the five-step evaluation process is whether the claimant is “engaged in substantial gainful work activity[.]” Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). If so, the claimant is automatically considered not disabled and the application for benefits is denied. See id. In this case, the ALJ found that Morrison had not engaged in such activity since August 10, 2012, the alleged onset date of her disability. (Dec. Finding #2; Tr. 12). Therefore, he proceeded to the second step in the sequential analysis.

         The second inquiry is whether the claimant has a “severe impairment, ” meaning an “impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is deemed not to be disabled and the application for benefits is denied. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Here, however, the ALJ determined that Morrison suffered from the severe impairment of pulmonary embolism, as well as the non-severe impairment of obesity. (Dec. Finding #3; Tr. 12). Because he found that the plaintiff had an impairment that was severe, the ALJ's analysis continued.

         The third inquiry is whether the claimant has an impairment equivalent to a specific list of impairments contained in Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations, in which case the claimant would automatically be found disabled. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). At this step, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments. (Dec. Finding #4; Tr. 15). Consequently, he proceeded to step four.

         The fourth inquiry asks whether “the applicant's ‘residual functional capacity' is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work[.]” Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Thus, in order to answer this inquiry, the ALJ must first make an assessment regarding the claimant's RFC. In the instant case, the ALJ assessed Morrison's RFC as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a)[2] except the claimant is able to lift ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently. She can stand or walk at least two hours in an eight-hour day. She can sit (with normal breaks) about six hours in an eight-hour workday. She has the ability to occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She can never climb a ladder. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, hazards, fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation.

(Dec. Finding #5; Tr. 16-17). Morrison challenges this finding, and contends that it was not based on substantial evidence.

         In reaching his conclusion regarding the plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ followed well established procedures. He first considered all of Morrison's symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms were consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (Dec. 8; Tr. 17). Accordingly, the ALJ reviewed the plaintiff's medical records, which consisted of records covering the time period from August 2012 through May 2014. (See Dec. 4-5, 9; Tr. 13-14, 18). He also considered the available opinion evidence, as well as statements that Morrison had made at the hearing regarding her symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms interfered with her ability to carry out day-to-day activities. (Dec. 6, 9-10; Tr. 15, 18-19). Because the ALJ found that Morrison's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, he went on to determine whether her subjective statements about the limiting effects of her symptoms were credible in light of the entire record. (See Dec. 8-9; Tr. 17-18). The ALJ concluded that “the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision.” (Dec. 9; Tr. 18). Morrison contends that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to give controlling weight to the opinions of her treating physician, Sofia Chu, M.D., and by discounting the credibility of her claim of disabling physical symptoms. For the reasons described below, this court finds that the ALJ's handling of these matters was appropriate, and that his decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record.

         After explaining the basis for his RFC determination, the ALJ compared Morrison's RFC to the physical and mental demands of her past work as a glass artist, office manager and bookkeeper, and considered the VE's testimony that an individual with Morrison's age, education, work history and RFC would be capable of returning to each of these positions. (Dec. 10; Tr. 19). The ALJ determined that each of the plaintiff's past jobs, as actually performed, “does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's [RFC].” (Dec. Finding #6; Tr. 19). Accordingly, he concluded that Morrison was capable of performing her past relevant work. (Id.).

         If the ALJ finds that the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, the claimant is deemed not to be disabled, and there is no need for the ALJ to proceed to step five. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) (“[a]t the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your [RFC] and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled”); Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5 (explaining that “[a]ll five steps are not applied to every applicant, as the determination may be concluded at any step along the process”). Because the ALJ in this case found that Morrison was capable of performing her past jobs as a glass artist, office manager ...

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