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Kelly v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 31, 2019

URSOLA P. KELLY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Ursola Kelly (“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 before the Court are Claimant's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision denying her disability benefits, [ECF No. 13], and the Commissioner's cross-motion for an order affirming the decision, [ECF No. 14]. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's decision was supported by substantial evidence and therefore DENIES Claimant's motion to reverse and remand [ECF No. 13] and ALLOWS the Commissioner's motion to affirm [ECF No. 14].

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Statutory and Regulatory Framework: Five-Step Process to Evaluate Disability Claims

          “The 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 [(‘SSI')] program, ” which assists the indigent, aged, and disabled. Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1381a).

         The Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides that an individual shall be considered “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 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); see also 42 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.

         When 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 granted.

Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).

         B. Procedural Background

         Claimant filed her application for SSDI benefits on April 2, 2015. [R. 217].[1] She alleges that she became disabled on May 1, 2011 due to multiple sclerosis (“MS”), anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder. [R. 15]. Her date last insured was December 31, 2015. [R. 13].

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) initially denied her claim on October 15, 2015 and denied the claim upon reconsideration on March 1, 2016. [R. 141, 145].[2] Claimant's application was reviewed initially, and on reconsideration, by state agency medical consultants, who determined that she was not disabled. [R. 15].

         Claimant requested an administrative hearing, which was held on March 13, 2017 before Administrative Law Judge Alexander Klibaner (“ALJ”). [R. 35]. Claimant, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. [R. 40-63]. On June 15, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found that Claimant was not disabled. [R. 22]. On February 12, 2018, the SSA Appeals Council denied Claimant's Request for Review. [R. 1]. On April 12, 2018, Claimant filed a timely complaint with this Court and sought review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 205(g). [ECF No. 1 at 1]. On September 30, 2018, Claimant filed a motion for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner, [ECF No. 13], and on November 1, 2018, the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner, [ECF No. 14].

         C. Factual Background

         Claimant was 39 years old when the ALJ's decision was issued. See [R. 40]. She stopped going to school around the tenth grade, but continued her schooling at home until she received the equivalent of a high school diploma. [Id.]. From 2002 until 2010, Claimant worked as a banquet server and a certified nursing assistant (“CNA”). [R. 51-52]. Although the alleged onset date of her disability is May 1, 2011, Claimant stopped working in June 2010, two months before she was due to give birth to her second child. [ECF No. 13-1 at 1; R. 242]. Between May 1, 2011 and December 31, 2015, the date last insured, Claimant was not gainfully employed. [R. 15]. She lives with her husband and two children in Attleboro, Massachusetts. [R. 40].

         D. Medical Evidence

         Although Claimant has a long history of fatigue and an MS diagnosis that predates the alleged May 2011 onset of her disability by several years, the Court begins with the medical evidence from around the date of the alleged onset. See [R. 368]. An April 2011 MRI showed that Claimant's lesions, a common symptom of MS, appeared to have become more numerous as compared to a March 2008 MRI, although increased image resolution was a possible cause. [R. 396]. A March 2012 MRI revealed similar lesions. [R. 402].

         In September 2012, Claimant met with a neurologist from Angels Neurological Centers. [R. 384]. Claimant reported that she had not had any flare ups of her MS for over a year and a half, but that her legs had begun to feel heavier, she was more tired, and she was having difficulty chasing her two-year-old. [Id.]. The neurologist noted Claimant's symptoms as weakness and fatigue, and they discussed potential symptoms of MS, including pain and memory loss, which Claimant denied experiencing. [ECF No. 13-1 at 3; R. 384-86]. In October 2012, another MRI showed results similar to Claimant's April 2011 and March 2012 MRIs, and Claimant's neurological and motor examinations were normal. [R. 404-13].

         In March 2013, Claimant returned to her neurologist and reported weakness and fatigue. [R. 410]. In July 2013, Claimant again complained of fatigue but denied neurological or psychological symptoms and was instructed to continue taking medication she had been prescribed to stay awake. [R. 416-17]. In November 2013, a nurse practitioner noted that Claimant was “[c]linically doing well, except for fatigue” and that Claimant was going to try switching her medication to Adderall. [R. 440, 443].

         In January 2014, at the request of the Commissioner, Dr. Marnee Colburn performed a consultative examination on Claimant following the claim for SSDI benefits. [ECF No. 13-1 at 4; R. 77-78]. Dr. Colburn noted that Claimant described symptoms consistent with obsessive compulsive disorder as well as infrequent panic attacks. [R. 480]. Dr. Colburn assessed that Claimant “does not appear to have [anxiety] symptoms that are substantially difficult for her at this time, ” but noted that Claimant could “benefit from treatment for her mental conditions.” [R. 480-81]. Finally, Dr. Colburn stated that Claimant's primary difficulties appear “somatic in nature (multiple sclerosis).” [R. 480].

         In March 2014, Claimant again complained of fatigue to a nurse practitioner, which Claimant attributed to the Adderall that had helped relieve her fatigue initially but had stopped working. [R. 482]. In April 2014, Claimant told her neurologist that she was experiencing facial numbness, leg weakness, continued fatigue, and difficulty walking. [R. 487-88]. For the most part, Claimant's neurological and motor examinations were normal, and her MS was stable although she had mild symptoms. [R. 489-90].

         In May 2014, Claimant again saw her primary care physician and reported fatigue and numbness. [R. 507-10]. In September 2014, Claimant also described trouble word finding, fatigue, muscle weakness and stiffness, and difficulty walking. [R. 582-83]. Claimant said that she had “good and bad days” and that her leg weakness was exacerbated by the heat, but that her facial numbness had resolved. [Id.].

         In January 2015, Claimant's neurologist conducted another MRI, and Claimant again reported that she had good and bad days, weakness, difficulty word finding, and that she was continuing to use Adderall to help with her fatigue. [R. 608]. Although Claimant also reported muscle cramps, muscle weakness, stiffness, tremors, and difficulty walking, her neurological and motor examinations were normal. [R. 610-611].

         In February 2015, Claimant began physical therapy where her medical issues were listed as trunk weakness, hip weakness, easily fatigued, and decreased walking distance. [R. 613]. Claimant indicated that her primary concern was her “[a]mount of fatigue with daily activities.” [R. ...

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