United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
ALLISON D. BURROUGHS, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE
Marlynn Saeed ("Ms. Saeed" or "Claimant")
brings this action pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the final
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (the "Commissioner") denying her
claim for Social Security Disability Insurance
("SSDI") benefits. Currently pending are
Claimant's motion to reverse the Commissioner's
decision denying her disability benefits [ECF No. 23], and
the Commissioner's cross-motion for an order affirming
the decision. [ECF No. 27]. For the reasons described herein,
the Court finds that the decision of the Administrative Law
Judge ("ALJ") was not supported by substantial
evidence and therefore VACATES the decision of the
Commissioner and REMANDS the case for further
administrative proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Statutory and Regulatory Framework: Five-Step Process
to Evaluate Disability Claims
Social Security Administration is the federal agency charged
with administering both the Social Security disability
benefits program, which provides disability insurance for
covered workers, and the Supplemental Security Income
program, which provides assistance for the indigent aged and
disabled." Seavey v. Barnhart 276 F.3d 1, 5
(1st Cir. 2001) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§423, 1381a).
Social Security Act (the "Act") provides that an
individual shall be considered to be "disabled" if
he or she 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 that
has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period
of not less than twelve months.
42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); seealso42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). The disability must be severe, such that the
claimant is unable to do his or her previous work or any
other substantial gainful activity that exists in the
national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20
C.F.R. § 416.905.
evaluating a disability claim under the Act, the Commissioner
uses a five-step process, which the First Circuit has
explained as follows:
All five steps are not applied to every applicant, as the
determination may be concluded at any step along the process.
The steps are: 1) if the applicant is engaged in substantial
gainful work activity, the application is denied; 2) if the
applicant does not have, or has not had within the relevant
time period, a severe impairment or combination of
impairments, the application is denied; 3) if the impairment
meets the conditions for one of the "listed"
impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the
application is granted; 4) if the applicant's
"residual functional capacity" is such that he or
she can still perform past relevant work, then the
application is denied; 5) if the applicant, given his or her
residual functional capacity, education, work experience, and
age, is unable to do any other work, the application is
Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5 (citing 20 C.F.R. §
filed her application for SSDI benefits on April 19, 2013.
[R. 12]. She alleged that she became disabled on
April 19, 2013, due to carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, and
"multiple musculoskeletal disorders." [R. 12, 14,
195]. Her date last insured was June 30, 2016. [R 12].
Social Security Administration (the "SSA") denied
Claimant's application for SSDI benefits on November 12,
2013, and again upon reconsideration on March 7, 2014. [R.
12]. Thereafter, Claimant requested an administrative
hearing, and a hearing took place before ALJ Daniel J.
Driscoll ("ALJ Driscoll") on May 27, 2015. [R. 12,
24]. Claimant, who was represented by counsel, appeared and
testified at the hearing. [R. 12, 24]. On June 26, 2015, ALJ
Driscoll issued a decision finding that Claimant was not
disabled. [R. 19]. The SSA Appeals Council denied her Request
for Review on August 10, 2016. [R. 1]. On September 23, 2016,
she filed a timely complaint with this Court, seeking review
of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to section 205(g)
of the Act. [ECF No. I].
was born in 1965 and was 50 years old when ALJ Driscoll
issued his decision. [R. 18-19, 170]. She resides in Roxbury,
Massachusetts with her sister and her niece. [R. 30-31]. She
has a high school education and last worked in September 2014
as a cashier in the bakery department of a Stop and Shop. She
previously held similar positions at Star Market, Shaw's
supermarket, andDunkin' Donuts. [R. 30-36], D.
has a long history of musculoskeletal impairment, reportedly
dating back to an early diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome
in 2004, as well as an injury to her left knee when she fell
from a ladder in the summer of 2008. [R. 75-76]. Following her
knee injury, by September 2008, she was advised that she
could return to work and use a high chair to take occasional
breaks while attending to her duties as a cashier. [R. 76].
In the fall of 2009, Claimant's treatment began to focus
on the impairment of her right foot, as she was diagnosed
with right peritoneal tendinosis. [R. 76]. In March 2010, a
large object fell onto and injured Claimant's right foot
while she was working at Dunkin' Donuts, after which she
was advised to use a medical boot. [R. 76]. She benefited
from treating her right foot with injection therapy and the
use of Voltaren gel in late 2010, but declined to participate
in further injection therapy in early 2011, against the
advice of her treating physicians. [R. 76-77]. In July 2011,
Claimant was advised that she could continue to work with the
limitation that she "should refrain from any high
lifting." [R. 77].
22, 2012, Dr. Eric Bluman, M.D. and certified physician
assistant ("PA-C") Samantha Noonan examined
Claimant after a mop bucket rolled over her right foot at
work. [R. 462]. Dr. Bluman determined that Claimant sprained
her right foot and prescribed the use of a boot for four to
six weeks. Id. On June 6, 2012, Claimant visited an
urgent care clinic at Brigham & Women's Hospital for
another workplace injury after a large metal cage fell onto
her right foot. [R. 315]. Although X-rays following this
latest accident showed no evidence of a fracture or
dislocation, [R. 329], Dr. Joseph Frank, M.D. advised
Claimant to wear a brace with an ACE bandage wrap. [R. 314].
On July 2, 2012, Dr. Frank examined Claimant again but was
hesitant to recommend that she avoid walking and stop
working. [R. 312]. He contacted PA-C Noonan for a
recommendation, and, on August 2, 2012, PA-C Noonan cleared
Claimant to return to work without restrictions while she
wore the brace. [R. 310].
18, 2013, state-agency physician Dr. Sanjay Ram, M.D.
completed a physical residual functional capacity
("RFC") assessment, finding that Claimant could (a)
occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds and frequently lift
and/or carry 10 pounds; (b) stand and/or walk for at least
two hours in an eight-hour workday; (c) sit for eight hours
in an eight-hour workday; (d) frequently reach overhead and
at the bench level; (e) frequently finger; (f) frequently
feel; and (g) occasionally handle. [R 409-10].
16, 2013, Dr. Lipika Samal, M.D. examined Claimant and noted
that her thumb was still causing her pain, but that her
"knee [was] better." [R. 289]. Claimant
demonstrated a "much more normal gait" and a full
range of motion in her upper and lower extremities, despite
showing decreased strength when flexing her right foot. [R.
290]. One week later, on July 24, 2013, Claimant saw Dr.
Kathryn Hanna, M.D. in the department of orthopedic surgery
at Brigham & Women's Hospital regarding stiffness in
her right thumb and middle finger. [R. 287], Dr. Hanna
assessed that Claimant had early trigger finger of the right
thumb and middle finger and recommended corticosteroid
injections, which Claimant declined. Id. Dr. Hanna
determined that surgery was unnecessary at the time and
recommended stretching in the absence of an
July and early August 2013, Dr. Jonathan R. Welch, M.D. and
Nicole Kostarellas, PA-C in the emergency care unit at
Brigham & Women's Hospital examined Claimant after
she slipped and twisted her left knee at work. [R. 280,
284-85]. Dr. Welch concluded that she likely sprained her
left knee and right middle finger and advised that she stay
out of work for at least two weeks. [R. 279, 284]. On August
14, 2013, Dr. Samal examined Claimant concerning the same
workplace injury and noted weakness in Claimant's right
foot but no abnormalities, and that an MRI of her left knee
showed osteoarthritis but no tears. [R. 276-77]. Dr. Samal
determined that Claimant "should be able to go back to
work when the pain decreases, " and referred her to Dr.
Spencer Stanbury, M.D. in the orthopedic surgery department.
[R. 278]. Dr. Stanbury reviewed X-rays of Claimant's
right middle finger and saw that there was "no acute
fracture or dislocation" and that her bones were
positioned within normal limits. [R. 460]. He also
administered a corticosteroid injection in Claimant's
right hand, but, on October 9, 2013, Claimant returned to Dr.
Stanbury, complaining that the corticosteroid injection had
not relieved her pain. [R. 274, 458, 460]. He conducted a
physical examination and found that Claimant had mild
swelling and stiffness of her middle finger, as well as some
stiffness and locking in her thumb. [R. 458]. He ordered a
nerve conduction study and prescribed the use of a wrist
splint at night. Id.
November 7, 2013, Dr. Jane Matthews, M.D. completed a RFC
assessment of Claimant. [R. 84-91]. Dr. Matthews noted that
X-rays of Claimant's middle finger showed no fractures or
dislocation and normal bone mineralization, and that X-rays
of her knee showed osteoarthritis but no tears. [R. 87]. She
also recognized that Claimant had received ibuprofen,
ointment, and cortisone injections to address her pain
"with moderate to good results." Id. In
concluding that Claimant could perform light work, she
determined that Claimant was subject to the following
exertional limitations: (a) occasionally climbing (ramps,
stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds), balancing, stooping,
kneeling, crouching, and crawling; (b) occasionally lifting
and/or carrying 20 pounds and frequently lifting and/or
carrying 10 pounds; (c) standing and/or walking for about six
hours in an eight-hour workday; and (d) sitting for about six
hours in an eight-hour workday. [R. 89]. Dr. Matthews found
no manipulative limitations or limitations on her ability to
push and/or pull. Id.
November 26, 2013, Dr. Michael Rivlin, M.D. examined Claimant
after electromyography ("EMG") and nerve conduction
studies showed that she had moderate-severe bilateral carpal
tunnel syndrome. [R. 332-33]. Dr. Rivlin assessed that
Claimant's carpal tunnel syndrome was more symptomatic in
her right hand than her left hand. [R. 332]. Claimant
expressed to Dr. Rivlin that she did not want a cortisone
injection to treat the pain in her hand but instead wanted to
undergo a procedure to release her right carpal tunnel and
middle finger. [R. 332]. Dr. Alison Kitay, M.D. performed a
right carpal tunnel release and trigger finger release of the
thumb and middle finger on June 3, 2014. [R. 449].
February 19, 2014, which was prior to the carpal tunnel
surgery mentioned above, state-agency reviewing physician Dr.
Harold Ramsey, M.D. completed a RFC assessment of Claimant.
[R. 102]. In finding that Claimant could perform light work,
he assessed that she was subject to the following exertional
limitations: (a) occasionally climbing ramps or stairs; (b)
never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (c) occasionally
balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; (d)
occasionally lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds and frequently
lifting and/or carrying 10 pounds; (e) standing or walking
for six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (f) sitting for
six hours in an eight-hour workday. [R. 99-103]. He found
that she was limited in bilateral handling and fingering due
to her carpal tunnel syndrome, although he did not indicate
how often she could perform such activities. ...