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Lemieux v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 29, 2018

JEAN PAUL LEMIEUX
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          DATE RYA W. ZOBEL, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Jean Paul Lemieux 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 plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. Plaintiff urges two grounds for remand: first, the ALJ discounted treating physician opinions with insufficient explanation; and second, the ALJ's basis for discrediting plaintiff's subjective allegations of pain is unclear.

         Pending before the court are plaintiff's motion to reverse or remand the decision of the Commissioner and defendant's motion for an order affirming that decision. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner will be remanded.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff is a 51-year old former pipefitter. He was laid off in January 2014 when hip and back pain diminished his job performance, and he thereafter underwent right hip replacement surgery. Although the surgery provided some initial relief, his pain persisted and complications ensued. Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on July 29, 2014, alleging disability beginning on December 20, 2013. His claim was first denied on October 30, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on April 27, 2015. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing at which the plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified was held on April 28, 2016.

         A. Applicable Statutes and Regulations

         To receive Social Security disability 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. § 423(d)(1)(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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see 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.§ 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 he 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, then the ALJ considers, third, whether such impairments meet or equal an entry in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, together with the duration requirement. If so, then the claimant is considered disabled and the analysis ends. If not, before moving to step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his] limitations, ” id. § 404.1545(a)(1). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the RFC allows him to perform his past relevant work. If the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled. If the claimant does not, then the ALJ decides, at step five, whether he 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. §§ 404.1512(b), 404.1560(c)(2).

         B. The Initial Rejection and the ALJ's Decision

         In his June 15, 2016 written decision, the ALJ's five-step analysis concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act.[1] First, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of December 20, 2013. Second, he determined that plaintiff had three severe impairments: osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, and obesity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) (requirement of severe impairment). Third, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R.[1] 14. Before moving to step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff's RFC:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that the claimant is limited to standing/walking for 2 hours in an 8-hour day; never climbing ropes, ladders, and scaffolds; occasionally climbing ramps and stairs; and occasionally balancing, crawling, stooping, kneeling, and crouching. The claimant must avoid extreme temperatures and hazards such as moving machinery, unprotected heights, and slippery/wet/uneven surfaces.

Id.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ concluded based on the VE's testimony that plaintiff was unable to return to his past relevant work as a pipefitter. At step five, again relying on the VE's testimony, he found that, “considering [plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that [plaintiff] could have performed.” Id. at 22. The VE had testified that plaintiff would have been able to perform representative occupations such as bench assembler, hand packager/inspector, and parking lot attendant - all light work jobs. Id. at 23. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled. Id.

         C. ...


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