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Page v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

December 27, 2018

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



         I. Introduction

         Jessica 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).[1] 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Standard for Entitlement to Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income

         In order to qualify for SSI, a claimant must demonstrate that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.[2] 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).

         Before 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).

         The 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 at 7.

         B. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         III. Facts

         A. Plaintiff's Background

         Plaintiff 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).

         B. Plaintiff's Physical Condition

         Plaintiff 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.

         The 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).

         On 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 (id.).

         Radiographs 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.).

         N.P. 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).

         Noah 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).

         Plaintiff 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.).

         On July 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.).

         According 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 edema ...

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