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Godbolt v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 8, 2017

TARA N. GODBOLT, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.[1]



         I. Introduction

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Tara N. Godbolt (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”). Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner's decision denying her such benefits - memorialized in a January 22, 2016 decision by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) - is in error. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in assessing her Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), first, by not assigning controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion and, second, by not including any manipulative limitation as supported by two state agency opinions. 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. 11). The Commissioner has moved for an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner (Dkt. No. 15). The parties have consented to this court's jurisdiction (Dkt. No. 14). 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 SSDI on October 9, 2014, alleging an August 25, 2014 onset of disability (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) at 142-43). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration (id. at 85-87, 89-91). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and one was held on December 23, 2015 (id. at 24-58, 92-93). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on January 22, 2016, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying Plaintiff's claim (id. at 8-22). The Appeals Council denied review on April 1, 2016, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner (id. at 1-5). This appeal followed.

         III. Legal Standards

         A. Standard for Entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance

         In order to qualify for SSDI, a claimant must demonstrate that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.[2] A claimant is disabled for purposes of 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). 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).

         The Commissioner evaluates a claimant's impairment under a five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in the regulations promulgated under the statute. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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.

         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). 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 43 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision (A.R. at 17). She has a high school education and previously worked as a nursing assistant (id. at 27). When she applied for SSDI, she alleged disability due to lupus, osteoarthritis, depression, and anxiety (id. at 154).[3] At the hearing, Plaintiff also claimed disability as a result of right wrist pain (id. at 26).

         B. Medical Evidence

         1. Treatment Records a. Knees

         On August 7, 2014, Plaintiff was evaluated by Scott Halista, M.D., of the Arthritis Treatment Center for right knee pain (id. at 329-333). Dr. Halista noted that Plaintiff had given her notice at work, reporting that she was unable to keep up because of the pain in her right knee (id.). While Dr. Halista observed that Plaintiff had full range of motion in her knees, Plaintiff experienced pain with passive range of motion in her right knee (id.). Plaintiff was using a right knee brace, and Dr. Halista recommended that she use a cane in her left hand for mobility (id.).

         Dr. Halista assessed Plaintiff with obesity, chronic lupus erythematosus, and osteoarthritis (id.). He ordered bloodwork, x-rays, and referral to an orthopedic surgeon for possible knee replacement surgery and counseled Plaintiff to lose weight (id.). The x-rays were taken that same day. The findings showed “evidence of moderate medial joint space narrowing with subchondral bone sclerosis and osteophyte formation, ” and the presence of osteophytes in the “lateral and patellofemoral joint compartments” (id. at 290). The impression was of “[m]oderate medial right knee joint osteoarthritis” (id. at 290).

         On September 22, 2014, Plaintiff saw her primary care physician, Rodrigo Salazar, M.D., at BMP Northern Edge Adult Medicine (id. at 221-223). Dr. Salazar noted that Plaintiff was “not doing well” and that she had to leave work because of her right knee, which, despite wearing a brace, was causing her pain and giving out when she was walking and helping patients (id.). Dr. Salazar noted that Plaintiff had begun to use a cane to ambulate (id.). Upon examination, Plaintiff exhibited right knee crepitus, not warm, but with effusion, and no edema (id.). Dr. Salazar assessed Plaintiff with lupus, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and arthritis of the right knee (id.).

         On September 25, 2014, Plaintiff saw Brian Puchalski, PA-C at New England Orthopedic Surgeons, for a consultation (id. at 453-54). Plaintiff reported experiencing increased pain in her right knee over the last several months (id.). She indicated that the pain increased with prolonged standing, walking, and going up and down stairs, and that she was no longer able to work as a nursing assistant as a result (id.). Upon examination, Puchalski noted that Plaintiff walked with a slow, antalgic gait on the right, and had point tenderness along the medial joint line of her right knee, with effusion and mild warmth (id.). Puchalski observed no ligamentous instability or edema (id.). Puchalski recommended that Plaintiff defer pursuing knee replacement in favor of continued non-surgical treatment options, including using her cane and brace, trying an ...

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