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Lopez v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 24, 2017

GENESIS SANTANA LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ALLISON D. BURROUGHS U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Genesis Santana Lopez (“Claimant”) brings this action pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for review of the partially favorable decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), regarding her claims for childhood disability benefits. Specifically, although Claimant was awarded benefits from April 12, 2014 forward, she was denied benefits from May 29, 2012 to April 12, 2014. Currently pending is Claimant's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision denying her disability benefits beginning May 29, 2012 [ECF No. 16] and the Commissioner's motion for an order affirming the decision [ECF No. 21]. For the reasons described herein, the Court concludes that the decision was supported by substantial evidence and therefore DENIES Claimant's motion to reverse and ALLOWS the Commissioner's motion to affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

          “The Social Security Administration is the federal agency charged with administering both the Social Security disability benefits program, which provides disability insurance for covered workers, and the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides assistance for the indigent aged and disabled.” Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1381a). The Social Security Act provides that an individual shall be considered to be “disabled” if he or she 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 that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The disability must be severe, such that the claimant is unable to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905.

         When evaluating a disability claim for an individual under the age of eighteen, the Commissioner utilizes a three-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924; see also Pagan ex rel. A.C. v. Astrue, 718 F.Supp.2d 176, 181 (D. Mass. 2010). First, the Commissioner must determine whether the child is engaging in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. (citing Beliveau v. Apfel, 154 F.Supp.2d 89, 93 (D. Mass. 2001) and 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b)). If the individual is not engaging in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the child has an impairment (or a combination of impairments) that is “severe.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). Third, the Commissioner must determine whether the impairment meets, medically equals, or functionally equals an impairment listed in the “Listing of Impairments.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d). If the child's impairment does not meet, medically equal, or functionally equal a “listed” impairment, the child will be deemed “not disabled.” § 416.924(d); see also Pagan ex rel A.C., 718 F.Supp.2d at 181. If a child cannot qualify under the listings, 20 CFR pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1 (pt. B), she is denied benefits. Id.

         B. Procedural Background

         Claimant filed her application for childhood disability benefits on May 29, 2012, alleging that she become disabled as of the same date due to seizures, headaches, and bone pain. [R. 21].[1] The Social Security Administration (the “SSA”) initially denied Claimant's application for childhood disability benefits on August 14, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on June 18, 2013. [R. 124]. Thereafter, Claimant requested an administrative hearing, and a hearing took place before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Eric Eklund on October 14, 2014. [R. 17]. Claimant, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. James Conway, an independent vocational expert, also appeared and testified. [R. 124]. On November 28, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Claimant was not disabled as of May 29, 2012, but that she became disabled after April 12, 2014, and before attaining age eighteen. [R. 139]. The SSA Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on March 24, 2016, at which point the ALJ's decision became final and subject to judicial review. Accordingly, on May 24, 2016, Claimant filed a timely complaint with this Court [ECF No. 1], seeking to reverse the Commissioner's decision pursuant to section 205(g) of the Act [ECF No. 16]. On December 21, 2016, Defendant Carolyn Colvin filed a motion to affirm the Commissioner's decision. [ECF No. 21].

         C. Factual Background

         Claimant was born on August 26, 1996, and fell under the “adolescents” age group at the time of the alleged onset date for her disability. [R. 129]. During the time of her alleged onset date, Claimant was one month shy of turning sixteen years old, attending Lowell High School, and living with her mother and her father. [R. 39-40, 94]. She often went shopping for groceries and clothing with her mother, did her homework, and cooked and cleaned. [R. 40-41]. During her time as a student, she did not work and therefore had no work history. [R. 129]. She reached age eighteen on August 26, 2014. Id. Claimant has not objected to the ALJ's finding of disability as of April 12, 2014, but does challenge the finding that she was not disabled as of May 29, 2012.

         D. Medical Evidence

         From March 2011 to May 2012, Claimant occasionally made visits to a nurse practitioner, Kristen Padulsky, for treatment related to her headaches. On three separate occasions, in March 2011, September 2011, and again in May 2012, the nurse examined Claimant, and found that she had good coordination in standing and walking [R. 501, 504, 507], noting that Claimant appeared “generally healthy” [R. 501], and had a “full range of motion” [R. 507].

         On June 3, 2012, Claimant went to the emergency room following a seizure. [R. 436]. While there, she stated that her last seizure was approximately nine months earlier. She also reported mild headaches that were resolved with an anti-inflammatory drug. [R. 436]. Upon discharge, the hospital noted that Claimant had a seizure disorder. [R. 439].

         On June 5, 2012, Claimant followed up with her pediatrician, Cathleen Bonacci, M.D, complaining of pain and swelling in her leg, as well as headaches. Dr. Bonacci started Claimant on Naproxen for the headaches. [R. 463]. She noted that Claimant was also taking antiepileptic medications, but deferred to Tufts Neurology for determinations on the medication that she should take regarding her seizures. [R. 463, 542].

         In July 2012, Claimant reported back to Dr. Bonacci, complaining of the headaches and left knee pain. Dr. Bonacci started Claimant on amitriptyline medication for the headaches, and referred her for laboratory testing to determine the nature of the knee pain. [R. 538-39].

         On August 3, 2012, Claimant saw a neurologist, Douglas Hyder, M.D. She reported to Dr. Hyder that she only had break-through seizures if she skipped taking her medication, and that she had headaches two to three times per week. [R. 508]. He put her on a lower dose of Celexa, after noting that higher doses can be associated with seizures, but that lower doses are not. [R. 509]. On August 30, 2012, she again visited Dr. Bonacci, reporting headaches that began with loss of vision and feeling dizzy. [R. 530].

         In January 2013, Claimant visited Laurie Miller, M.D., with complaints of joint pain in her left knee that radiated up to the hip. [R. 566]. At this time, Claimant had rare nocturnal pain that worsened with activity and occasional limping, as well as slight wrist pain when opening a jar, cleaning, and doing dishes. Id. Dr. Miller noted that Claimant was able to attend school daily, that she participated in modern dance at school, that her grades were “B's and C's, ” and that she was interested in going to college. Id.

         On April 5, 2013, Claimant reported again to Nurse Padulsky regarding her headaches, pain, and visual changes that caused her to miss as many as thirty days of school. [R. 580]. The nurse wrote that Claimant missed two appointments with Dr. Hyder, the neurologist, and despite being advised to do so, had not followed up with him since the visit in August 2012. Id. She further noted that ...


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