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Thompson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 18, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Stacy Thompson appeals from a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") upholding the ruling of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") that denied her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) rejecting a critical portion of the vocational expert's ("VE") testimony; (2) failing to evaluate subjectively claimant's stress issue; and (3) finding that plaintiff had no physical limitations (Docket # 16). The Commissioner filed a cross-motion seeking an order to affirm the decision (Docket # 17).

         Because I conclude that the ALJ did not commit such errors and his decision was supported by substantial evidence, Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse (Docket # 16) is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision (Docket #17) is ALLOWED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI and SSI on March 19, 2013, alleging disability due to "anxiety-depression, PTSD-anxuety [sic] attacks, [and] isolation" beginning September 28, 2011. R. at 185.[2] Her claims were first denied on July 16, 2013, and again upon reconsideration later in October 2013. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing was held on September 12, 2014. At the hearing, a medical expert and a VE testified. Plaintiff's attorney, who was also present, waived plaintiff's right to appear at the hearing.[3]

         A. Applicable Statutes and Regulations

         To receive SSDI or SSI benefits, 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); see also 42 U.S.C. 1382c(a)(3)(A).[4] The impairment or impairments must be "of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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), 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).[5]

         The ALJ analyzes whether a claimant is disabled by using an established "five-step sequential evaluation process." See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(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), 416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, then the ALJ considers, third, whether the impairment or impairments meets or equals an entry in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and meets the duration requirement. If so, then the claimant is considered disabled. If not, then the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functioning capacity ("RFC"), which is "the most [a claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations, " 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ then moves to step four and determines whether the claimant's RFC allows her to perform her past relevant work. If the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. If the claimant does not, then the ALJ decides, at step five, whether the claimant can do other work in light of her RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the claimant can, she is not considered disabled; otherwise, she 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), 416.912(f), 416.960(c)(2).

         B. The Initial Rejection and the ALJ's Decision

         In an October 16, 2014, written decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. He first concluded that plaintiff did meet the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 1, 2017. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) & 423. Then, he structured his decision around the five-step sequential evaluation process. At the first step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of her disability. Next, at step two, he found that she has several severe impairments: depression and anxiety. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Nonetheless, he determined at step three that she does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         Before moving to step four, the ALJ found:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant retains the mental capacity to perform simple, routine tasks, which require concentration for two hour time periods. The work must be in the lower 1/3 of the stress continuum, defined as no independent decision making required, with no more than occasional changes in the work routine.

R. at 15. After reviewing the medical evidence of record and treatment notes, he found that "the claimant's allegations are exaggerated and inconsistent with the objective evidence." Id. at 18. Specifically, he cited claimant's ability to visit with family, shop, and drive short distances, go to church, and "maintain enough attention to watch TV and read, " concluding that "[w]hile she can reasonably be expected to struggle with complex instructions and tasks involving excessive social contacts, there is little indication that she cannot meet the basic mental demands of most unskilled work."Id. At the fourth step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work that involved "semi-skilled [work], " Id. at 38, given her RFC "because she only retains the mental capacity for unskilled work, "Id. at 19. However, based on the VE's testimony, he found that "[considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform."Id. The VE testified that plaintiff could perform unskilled occupations such as a greenhouse worker, auto detailer, and housekeeping cleaner. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled.

         C. ...

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