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Sullivan v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 10, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Anthony Sullivan appeals from a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) upholding the ruling of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that rejected his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in concluding that his bilateral shoulder limitations were not severe, and in failing to give appropriate weight to the related medical opinion evidence.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on January 28, 2014. He originally alleged disability as of November 2, 2003, but later amended the onset date to the date of his 2014 SSI application. His claim was first denied on July 2, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on October 27, 2014. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing at which the plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified was held on January 5, 2016.

         A. Applicable Statutes and Regulations

         To receive 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c (a)(3)(A). The impairment “must be of such severity that 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.” Id. § 1382c (a)(3)(B); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).

         The ALJ analyzes whether a claimant is disabled using an established “five-step sequential evaluation process.” See 20 C.F.R. § 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, at step two the ALJ then decides whether the claimant has a “severe” medical impairment or impairments, i.e. one that “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” id. § 416.920(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 functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, which is “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his] limitations, ” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ then moves to step four and determines whether the claimant's RFC allows him to perform his past relevant work. If the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he is not disabled. If the claimant does not, the ALJ decides, at step five, whether the claimant can do other work in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the claimant can, he is not considered disabled; otherwise, he 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. §§ 416.912(b)(3), 416.960(c)(2).

         B. The Initial Rejection and the ALJ's Decision

         In a February 2, 2016, written decision structured around the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. At the first step, he determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 28, 2014, the date on which he filed his SSI application. Next, at step two, he found that plaintiff has several severe impairments: type II diabetes with peripheral neuropathy in the lower extremities, lumbar degenerative disc disease with disc protrusion at ¶ 3-L4 and bilateral L5-S1 radiculopathy, obesity, anxiety disorder, and affective disorder. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the ALJ nonetheless ruled that plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” R.[1] at 23. Before moving to step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff's RFC:

the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except he could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and he could sit for 6 hours out of an 8 hour workday, and stand or walk for 6 hours out of an 8 hour workday. In addition, he could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, but never ropes, ladders or scaffolds, and he could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. Furthermore, he could occasionally push and pull with the bilateral lower extremities, and he should avoid even moderate exposure to unprotected heights. Finally, he could maintain concentration, persistence or pace on tasks up to a specific vocational preparation of 3 (SVP 3), and he could deal with minor changes in the workplace.

Id. at 24. The ALJ explained that he “considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” and that he “also considered opinion evidence” in accordance with the Social Security regulations. Id. He ultimately concluded that although plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms . . . [his] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible.” Id. at 31.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. But at step five, the ALJ determined, based on the VE's testimony, “that, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” Id. at 33. The VE testified that the claimant could perform representative occupations such as order filler, cashier, electrical assembler, and merchandise tagger. Crediting this testimony, the ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled.

         C. The Appeal

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council, which denied review on February 6, 2017. The ALJ's decision then became the final decision of the Commissioner, and plaintiff brought ...

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