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Bennett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 20, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Nicholas Bennett appeals from a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) upholding the ruling of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that rejected his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to consider the limitations assessed by one of the state agency non-examining physicians.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on July 31, 2013, alleging disability beginning on August 31, 2010. His claim was first denied on September 30, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on December 31, 2013. He thereupon filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing was held on November 5, 2014. At the hearing, plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified.

         A. Applicable Statutes and Regulations

         To receive Social Security DIB, 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). The impairment must be “of such severity that 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.” 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)-(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). If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, then the ALJ considers, third, whether such meet or equal an entry in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, together with the duration requirement. If so, then the claimant is considered disabled. If not, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his] limitations, ” Id. § 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, then 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 January 16, 2015, written decision, structured around the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act through September 30, 2011, the date last insured (“DLI”).[2] At the first step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of August 31, 2010, through his DLI. Next, at step two, he determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments through his DLI: lower back pain due to mild lumbar stenosis and spondylosis, clotting disorder (Von Willebrand's disease), polyarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Nonetheless, at step three, the ALJ held that plaintiff “did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Docket # 12-2, at 14. Before moving to step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff's RFC:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he was limited to no more than occasional climbing, stooping, bending, balancing, twisting, kneeling and crawling. He must avoid ladders, heights, hazards, dangerous moving machinery, and sharp cutting tools. He must avoid extreme heat and extreme cold.

Id. at 15. The ALJ explained that he gave the treating medical source opinions “little evidentiary weight insofar as they concern the claimant's condition on and prior to the date last insured. Though more recent treatment notes may support their findings to some degree, their opinions are largely unsupported by the benign medical findings discussed above and are inconsistent with the longitudinal treatment record.” Id. at 17. He accorded the state agency non-examining medical physicians' opinions “significant evidentiary weight” because they were “consistent with the medical evidence as a whole.” Id. However, “unlike the state agency examiners, ” the ALJ found “that the claimant's arthritis caused more than minimal functional limitations during the period at issue and is therefore severe.” Id.

         Then, relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded at the fourth step, that through the DLI, plaintiff “was capable of performing past relevant work as a computer-aided design (‘CAD') drafter, ” and that “[t]his work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by” plaintiff's RFC.” Id. At step five, again relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ made the alternative finding that, “considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity, there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant also could have performed.” Id. at 18. The VE had testified that the claimant would have been able to perform representative occupations such as cashier/ticket seller, information clerk, and office helper - all light work jobs. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled.

         C. The Appeal

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council, which denied review on April 5, 2016. The ALJ's decision then became the final decision of the Commissioner, and plaintiff ...

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