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Andrade-Hermort v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 6, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Maria Manuela Andrade-Hermort 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”). Docket # 10. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's finding that she could perform her past work was not supported by substantial evidence, and relatedly, that the ALJ erred by failing to consider the effects of her impairments when determining her residual functional capacity. The Commissioner filed a cross-motion seeking an order to affirm the decision. Docket # 13.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI on February 11, 2014, alleging disability due to “inflamatory [sic] [rheumatoid arthritis], DDD back, possible Lyme Disease, brain aneurysm s/p surgery with shunt in situ, HBP, risk of bleeding, right CTS-trigger finger-arthritis, impaired balance with falls, and L knee disorder” beginning April 2, 2012. R. at 143.[2] Her claims were first denied on April 15, 2014, and again upon reconsideration later in July 2014. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing was held on August 19, 2015. At the hearing, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified.

         A. Applicable Statutes and Regulations

         To receive SSDI 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). 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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         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). 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, 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, 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). 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, she is not disabled. If the claimant does not, 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(3), 404.1560(c)(2).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         In a September 24, 2015, 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 December 30, 2012. See 42 U.S.C. § 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, and at step two, that she has several severe impairments: fibromyalgia and associated lower back pain, and arthritis.[3] See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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 because “the medical evidence does not show a gross anatomical deformity [or] findings based on appropriate medically acceptable imaging of joint space narrowing, bony destruction, or ankylosis (Listing 1.02).” R. at 20. Before moving to step four, he wrote:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that she can lift 20 pounds occasionally, and 10 pounds frequently; stand or walk at least 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; sit (with normal breaks), about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; frequently climb or balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, but never climb a ladder; and, she must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards.

Id. He found plaintiff's allegations only “partially credible” because the “treatment notes in the record do not support the conditions to which she testified.” R. at 22. Specifically, although she testified that she had “painful joints and swelling in her lower back, shoulders, elbows, hands, knees, and ankles, and . . . was having a difficult time climbing stairs, ” id. at 21, the objective medical evidence reflected that plaintiff in December 2012 had “a full [range of motion] of all joints, 5/5 strength throughout; mild tenderness to palpation at multiple joints (hands, wrist, elbows, knees, and ankles); a full sensation to light touch; normal patellar reflexes; 5/5 strength throughout, including hip flexors; low back pain with a negative straight leg raise bilaterally; and no evidence of active synovitis.” Id. at 22. “Accordingly, [he found] that although the claimant experiences some limitations, they are only found to be to the extent described in the [RFC].” Id. At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that, based on the VE's testimony, plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work that included light, semi-skilled positions as a Social Service Aide[4] and as a Teacher's Aide. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled through the date last insured.

         C. The Appeal

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Appeals Council, which denied review on October 7, 2016. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff now seeks reversal of the final determination under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. ...

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