Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Slater v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 21, 2017

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



         I. Introduction

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Ralph Francis Slater III (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying his claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”). Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner's decision denying him such benefits - memorialized in an April 20, 2015 decision by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) - is in error. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred (1) by attributing a medical opinion to the wrong treating source in his decision; (2) in his assessment of Plaintiff's credibility; and (3) by not including postural, manipulative, and environmental limitations in his residual functional capacity assessment. 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. 12). The Commissioner has moved for an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner (Dkt. No. 22). The parties have consented to this court's jurisdiction (Dkt. No. 15). 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 June 25, 2013, alleging a November 12, 2012 onset of disability (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) at 190-91). Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration (id. at 128-130, 135-37). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and one was held on February 10, 2015 (id. at 48-93, 138-39). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on April 20, 2015, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying Plaintiff's claim (id. at 26-43). The Appeals Council denied review on July 5, 2016, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner (id. at 1-6). 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 on the alleged disability onset date (A.R. at 36). He has a high school education and previously worked as a sheet metal fabricator, delivery driver, order selector, and yard manager (id. at 54, 88). When he applied for SSDI, he alleged disability due to neck and back pain, neck injury, back injury, and diabetes (id. at 208). At the hearing, Plaintiff claimed disability due to a combination of physical impairments, including back pain radiating down his legs, knee pain, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, and diabetes (id. at 63-81).

         B. Medical Evidence

         1. Pre-Hearing Treatment Records

         On December 14, 2012, Plaintiff was evaluated by Scott Cowan, M.D., of New England Orthopedic Surgeons for neck and back pain that radiated down his legs (id. at 719-720). Plaintiff reported having sustained an injury at work on October 30, 2012, when he was lifting an 80 pound piece of sheet metal and experienced the onset of pain (id.). Following his work injury, Plaintiff had nine visits of physical therapy, but reported that they were minimally effective (id.). Subsequently, Plaintiff had an MRI of his thoracic spine, which Dr. Cowan reviewed and noted was “essentially unremarkable” (id.). Lumbar spine radiographs showed an old compression fracture at ¶ 1, which was minimally compressed, but were otherwise “really unremarkable as well” (id.). Plaintiff reported bilateral radiating leg pain, which was achy in quality, as well as numbness and weakness (id.). Plaintiff reported that the pain worsened with activity, but was relieved if he reclined (id.). Dr. Cowan observed Plaintiff to be morbidly obese and in no acute distress (id.). Plaintiff rose from a seated position without difficulty (id.). Upon examination, Plaintiff had a reduced range of motion (60% of normal) of the neck, tenderness to deep palpation of the cervicothoracic junction region, and tenderness to mild palpation throughout the thoracolumbar spine (id.). While his gait was within normal limits, Plaintiff experienced pain with hip and knee range of motion and seated straight leg raising (id.). Dr. Cowan noted that Plaintiff had “examination inconsistencies” raising “secondary gain” questions (id.). Dr. Cowan recommended that Plaintiff continue with his non-operative care regimen with John Bedford, M.D., Plaintiff's primary care physician, and Ronald Paasch, M.D., at Pioneer Spine & Sports Physicians (id.).

         Plaintiff saw Dr. Bedford on December 17, 2012, at which time Dr. Bedford noted that Plaintiff had seen Dr. Cowan, who “reportedly did not feel any surgical intervention was indicated …” (id. at 278-79). On that same date, Dr. Bedford indicated in a To Whom It May Concern letter that Plaintiff could not return to work for two weeks because his pain was intensified by movement and vibration (id. at 710). In the letter, Dr. Bedford also stated that he would reevaluate Plaintiff on December 31, 2012, and that Plaintiff was waiting on approval of a specialist appointment with Dr. Paasch (id.).

         As contemplated, Plaintiff returned to Dr. Bedford on December 31, 2012 (id. at 276-77). At the time, Plaintiff indicated that he felt that his symptoms were relieved by pain medications and had improved some with an increase in Fentanyl (id.). Upon examination, Plaintiff exhibited tenderness in the region of his lumbar spine (id.).

         Plaintiff saw Dr. Paasch on January 31, 2013 (id. at 348-350). Plaintiff's history included persistent low back and bilateral lower extremity pain since October, with the pain radiating posteriorly down his legs into his calves and which worsened with prolonged standing or sitting (id.). Dr. Paasch noted that an x-ray of the lumbar spine showed no significant abnormality except for some mild degenerative changes (id.). Dr. Paasch also noted that Plaintiff had been in physical therapy, but that it had not been significantly helpful, and that Plaintiff had obtained an orthopedic consultation, but aggressive intervention had not been recommended (id.). Plaintiff was status post caudal epidural injection, but reported only one day of significant pain relief (id.). Upon examination, Plaintiff walked with a normal gait, but reported discomfort with both lumbar flexion and extension, exhibited tenderness in the iliolumbar area bilaterally, and had a positive leg test bilaterally (id.). Dr. Paasch recommended obtaining an updated MRI of the lumbar spine to rule out a disc herniation or stenosis and nerve root impingement (id.).

         Plaintiff continued to see Dr. Paasch on a monthly basis through June 24, 2013 for persistent pain (id. at 330-347). On February 12, 2013, Dr. Paasch noted that a recent EMG showed “a significant disc bulge L4-5 and a possible free disc fragment with lipomatosis and crowding of the canal and possible L5 nerve roots” (id. at 345). ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.