United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION
FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO
AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DOCKET NOS. 12 &
KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Lee Page ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) challenging the final decision
of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security
("Commissioner") denying her application for
Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Plaintiff
applied for SSI on February 26, 2014, alleging a March 30,
2010 onset of disability, due to problems stemming from a
variety of impairments, including: depression, anxiety,
insomnia, protruding discs, PTSD, lack of focus, and
increased fatigue (A.R. at 115, 270). On March 1, 2016, the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that
Plaintiff was not disabled and denied her application for SSI
(id. at 56-68). The Appeals Council denied review
(id. at 1-6) and thus, the ALJ's decision became
the final decision of the Commissioner. This appeal followed.
appeals the Commissioner's denial of her claim on the
ground that the decision is not supported by
"substantial evidence" under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). Pending before this court are Plaintiff's motion
for judgment on the pleadings requesting that the
Commissioner's decision be reversed or remanded for
further proceedings (Dkt. No. 12), and the Commissioner's
motion for an order affirming the decision of the ALJ (Dkt.
No. 17). The parties have consented to this court's
jurisdiction (Dkt. No. 20). See 28 U.S.C. §
636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. For the reasons stated below, the
court will grant the Commissioner's motion for an order
affirming the decision and deny Plaintiff's motion.
Standard for Entitlement to Disability Insurance Benefits
and Supplemental Security Income
order to qualify for SSI, a claimant must demonstrate that
she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
A claimant is disabled for purposes of SSI if 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 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). A claimant is unable to engage in any
substantial gainful activity when 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, regardless of whether such work exists
in the immediate area in which [s]he lives, or whether a
specific job vacancy exists for [her], or whether [s]he would
be hired if [s]he applied for work.
42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Commissioner evaluates a
claimant's impairment under a five-step sequential
evaluation process set forth in the regulations promulgated
by the Social Security Administration ("SSA").
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). The
hearing officer must determine: (1) whether the claimant is
engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the
claimant suffers from a severe impairment; (3) whether the
impairment meets or equals a listed impairment contained in
Appendix 1 to the regulations; (4) whether the impairment
prevents the claimant from performing previous relevant work;
and (5) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from
doing any work considering the claimant's age, education,
and work experience. See id; see also Goodermote v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6-7
(1st Cir. 1982) (describing the five-step process). If the
hearing officer determines at any step of the evaluation that
the claimant is or is not disabled, the analysis does not
continue to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
proceeding to steps four and five, the Commissioner must
assess the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity
("RFC"), which the Commissioner uses at step four
to determine whether the claimant can do past relevant work
and at step five to determine if the claimant can adjust to
other work. See id.
RFC is what an individual can still do despite his or her
limitations. RFC is an administrative assessment of the
extent to which an individual's medically determinable
impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain,
may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that
may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical
and mental activities
Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, 1996 WL
374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996).
claimant has the burden of proof through step four of the
analysis, including the burden to demonstrate RFC.
Flaherty v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 11-11156-TSH,
2013 WL 4784419, at *8-9 (D. Mass. Sept. 5, 2013) (citing
Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir.
2004)). At step five, the Commissioner has the burden of
showing the existence of jobs in the national economy that
the claimant can perform notwithstanding his or her
restrictions and limitations. Goodermote, 690 F.2d
Standard of Review
district court may enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or
reversing the final decision of the Commissioner, with or
without remanding for rehearing. See 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). Judicial review "is limited to
determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards
and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence."
Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655
(1st Cir. 2000). The court reviews questions of law de
novo, but "the ALJ's findings shall be
conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence, and
must be upheld 'if a reasonable mind, reviewing the
evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as
adequate to support his conclusion,' even if the record
could also justify a different conclusion." Applebee
v. Berryhill, No. 18-1510, 2018 WL 6266310, at *1 (1st
Cir. Nov. 30, 2018) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of
Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222-23 (1st
Cir. 1981) (citations omitted)). "While 'substantial
evidence' is 'more than a scintilla,' it
certainly does not approach the preponderance-of-the-evidence
standard normally found in civil cases." Bath Iron
Works Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 336 F.3d 51, 56
(1st Cir. 2003) (citing Sprague v. Dir., Office of
Workers' Comp. Programs, U.S. Dep't of
Labor, 688 F.2d 862, 865 (1st Cir. 1982)). In applying
the substantial evidence standard, the court must be mindful
that it is the province of the ALJ, and not the courts, to
determine issues of credibility, resolve conflicts in the
evidence, and draw conclusions from such evidence. See
Applebee, 2018 WL 6266310, at *1. That said, the ALJ may
not ignore evidence, misapply the law, or judge matters
entrusted to experts. See Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d
31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam).
was 26 years old when she applied for SSI on February 26,
2014 (A.R. at 454). At the time of the hearing before the ALJ
in January 2016, Plaintiff was 28 years old and lived with
her former fiancé's mother and her two-year old
son (id. at 81-82, 93). Plaintiff graduated from
high school and was certified to be a teacher's assistant
(id. at 78). Prior to the alleged onset of
disability on March 30, 2010, she had worked as a server, a
production laborer doing packaging and sealing, a concession
stand worker in a movie theater, and a cashier (id.
at 95-96, 278). She was a substitute teacher during the
school year that ended in June 2015 and worked full-time for
three months performing data entry as a temporary employee
until November 6, 2015 (id. at 79-80).
Plaintiff's Physical Condition
told the ALJ that she was unable to work because of pain in
her back, right hip, and both knees (id. at 65).
Because Plaintiff's challenge to the ALJ's decision
mainly concerns his assessment of the limitations caused by
the condition of her right hip and, to a lesser extent her
back and knees, the court focuses on Plaintiff's medical
history that is related to those conditions.
October 23, 2013 MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed
mild disc protrusions at ¶ 4-L5 and L5-S1 "without
mass effect" (id. at 855). The facet joints and
endplates were normal and the bony canal and neural foramina
were well-maintained (id. at 855-56).
March 13, 2014, Plaintiff visited Nurse Practitioner
("N.P.") John Glogowski of Western Mass. Physician
Associates, Inc. complaining of pain in her back and left
knee (id. at 398). She reported that she had
experienced "sharp" pain in her knee during the
past month (id.). It "intensifie[d] with any
movement" and "continue[d] for over an hour after
sitting" (id.). Plaintiff's left knee was
not swollen (id.). Palpation of the knee did not
exacerbate the pain, crepitus was not noted with extension
and flexion of the "LLE," but extension and flexion
exacerbated the pain to Plaintiff's medial left knee
(id.). N.P. Glogowski prescribed Percocet
of Plaintiff's left knee on March 18, 2014 were
"unremarkable" (id. at 857). There were no
fractures or dislocations, patellar subluxation, knee joint
effusion, or significant soft tissue swelling (id.).
Glogowski ordered an MRI of Plaintiff's left knee on
April 3, 2014 (id. at 396). The MRI showed: no
evidence of a discrete meniscal tear; an increased signal in
the proximal PCL, which may have reflected "myxoid
degeneration or sprain;" and a "small
effusion" (id. at 859).
Epstein, M.D. of HMC Orthopedic Surgeons examined
Plaintiff's left knee on April 28, 2014 (id. at
499). Plaintiff denied "mechanical symptoms"
(id.). Dr. Epstein noted that the MRI findings were
"unremarkable" (id.). His examination of
Plaintiff's left knee revealed "no joint line
tenderness and no effusion" (id.). She had
"tenderness palpation about the patellar tendon and a
mildly positive lateral tilt test" (id.). Dr.
Epstein injected Plaintiff's knee and recommended six
weeks of physical therapy (id. at 499-500, 620).
was evaluated for physical therapy at Holyoke Medical Center
on May 1, 2014 (id. at 620). Although she complained
of pain in both knees, she was not limping and her knees were
not significantly swollen (id. at 475, 620, 622).
According to the records, Plaintiff attended physical therapy
sessions on May 1, May 8, May 20, May 22, and June 10, and
17, 2014 (id. at 606, 608, 612, 614, 616, 618). She
cancelled the session that was scheduled for June 5, 2014
(id. at 610). On June 10, 2014, Plaintiff reported
that her knees had not hurt since her last session
notwithstanding that fact that she had walked "a
lot" (id. at 608). On June 17, 2014, Plaintiff
reported that negotiating stairs was easier (id. at
606). The records show that she had met her goals on that
date, was going on vacation until about July 10, 2014, and
would call the therapist when she returned (id.).
29, 2014, Plaintiff saw N.P. Glogowski for pain in her back
and "sharp" pain in her right hip (id. at
949). She reported experiencing pain in her hip every night
since June and felling "popping" in her right hip
when she walked (id.). N.P. Glogowski did not note
popping or clicking when Plaintiff performed knee to chest
raises and entire extremity raises (id.). However,
walking produced popping and sharp pain in Plaintiff's
right lateral hip (id.).
to the x-ray report of July 31, 2014, there was "normal
anatomic alignment and appearance of the osseous structures
[of Plaintiff's right hip] without evidence of acute
fracture or dislocation," "no significant
degenerative change," and "no radiographically
apparent soft tissue abnormality" (id. at 862).
The MRI that was conducted on August 28, 2014 revealed mild
to moderate greater trochanteric bursitis, an intact labrum,
and "[m]inimal chondral irregularity and subchondral