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Allen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 1, 2017

JOANNE M. ALLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS (DOCKET NO. 12) AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION (DOCKET NO. 16).

          TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner” or “SSA”) denying the application of Joanne Allen (“Plaintiff”) for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings (Docket No. 12) seeking a reversal of the Commissioner's decision. The Commissioner filed a cross-motion seeking an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner (Docket No. 16).[2] For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's motion is denied.

         Discussion

         The parties are familiar with the factual history of this case, the standard of review, and the applicable five-step sequential analysis. Accordingly, the court will review the procedural and substantive history of the case as it relates to the arguments set forth by the Plaintiff.

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits (DIB) on April 10, 2013, alleging disability as of August 1, 2002 (AR. 483-86). The application was denied initially (AR. 402-09, 419-22), and on reconsideration (AR. 410-18, 425-27), and Plaintiff requested a hearing with an ALJ (AR. 428-29). On September 15, 2014, ALJ Addison C.S. Masengill held a hearing at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified (AR. 364-401). Plaintiff's husband testified in support of her application, and an independent vocational expert also appeared and testified (AR. 364-401). The ALJ issued a decision on November 21, 2014, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time relevant to the decision (AR. 136-52). On March 18, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (AR. 1-7). This case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The ALJ's Findings

         At step one in his decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between her alleged onset date of August 1, 2002, and her date last insured of September 30, 2008. (AR. 141). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, peripheral neuropathy, right elbow pain tendonitis, plantar fasciitis with some neuropathy, heel pain, bursitis, and tendonitis (AR. 141-42). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments (AR. 142). Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that she was limited to only four hours of standing and walking in an eight-hour day; could not use any foot or leg controls; would need to avoid exposure to heights, ladders, ropes, and scaffolding; and was further limited to no more than incidental exposure to extremes of cold and vibration (AR. 142-47). At step four, the ALJ relied on testimony from a vocational expert (VE) in finding that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a claims clerk (AR. 147). The ALJ thus found that Plaintiff was not disabled (AR. 147).

         In seeking to reverse the decision, Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred by not calling on the services of a medical advisor to determine the onset date of her disabling impairments. Second, Plaintiff argues that, in assessing the Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), the ALJ did not take into account all of Plaintiff's severe impairments in assessing more limitations.

         Whether the ALJ Was Required to Call on the Services of a Medical Advisor

         Plaintiff asserts that based on the medical evidence in the record, it could be reasonably inferred that the onset of her disabling condition occurred prior to the date last insured. She then argues that if the ALJ did not find sufficient proof of such a disabling condition in the medical record, in accordance with Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 83-207, he should have called on the services of a medical advisor. The Respondent argues that because the ALJ did not find that Plaintiff was disabled at any point during the insured period, he was not required to obtain medical expert testimony.

         Pursuant to SSR 83-20, where Commissioner has determined the claimant is disabled, the ALJ must establish the onset of the disability. See SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *1 (S.S.A.1983).

In some cases, it may be possible, based on the medical evidence to reasonably infer that the onset of a disabling impairment(s) occurred some time prior to the date of the first recorded medical examination, e.g., the date the claimant stopped working. How long the disease may be determined to have existed at a disabling level of severity depends on an informed judgment of the facts in the particular case. This judgment, however, must have a legitimate medical basis. At the hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) should call on the services of a medical advisor when onset must be inferred. If there is information in the file indicating that additional medical evidence concerning onset is available, such evidence should be secured before inferences are made.

Id., at *3.

         Plaintiff's claim fails in the first instance because “[a]n ALJ is not required to consider SSR 83-20 unless the ALJ first finds that the claimant was disabled at some point prior to the date last insured.” Silverio v. Astrue, No. CIV.A. 10-40202-FDS, 2012 WL 996857, at *6 (D.Mass. Mar. 21, 2012). In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period. ...


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