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Ferguson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 14, 2020



          Denise J. Casper United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Kathleen Ferguson (“Ferguson”) applied for disability insurance benefits (“SSDI”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on March 18, 2014. Following denial of her claims, pursuant to the procedures set forth in the Social Security Act, 5 U.S.C. § 706, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), Ferguson brought this action for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (“the Commissioner”), Acting Commissioner of the SSA, issued by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 24, 2017. Before the Court are Ferguson's motion to reverse, D. 16, and the Commissioner's motion to affirm that decision, D. 18. For the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES Ferguson's motion to reverse and ALLOWS the Commissioner's motion to affirm.

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court has the power to affirm, modify or reverse a decision of the Commissioner upon review of the pleadings and record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Such review, however, is “limited to determining whether the ALJ deployed the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (citing Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996)). Issues of credibility and inferences drawn from the facts on record are committed to the Commissioner, who ultimately resolves conflicts in the evidence and determines the disability status of the claimant. Lizotte v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 654 F.2d 127, 128 (1st Cir. 1981) (internal citation omitted). The ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive when supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence exists “if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the Commissioner's] conclusion.” Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981). As such, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, Am. Textile Mfrs. Inst., Inc. v. Donovan, 452 U.S. 490, 523 (1981), “even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion.” Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987).

         III. Factual Background

         Ferguson was fifty years old when she ceased working on January 31, 2014. R. 199, 430.[1]She had previously worked as a nurse's assistant, bookkeeper and then as a house cleaner/caregiver. R. 454.

         In her March 18, 2014 application for SSDI and SSI with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), Ferguson claimed disability due to severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, spurs and worsening pain in her feet, pain in her left knee and mental illness. R. 194, 413.

         A. Medical History

         1. Bilateral Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

         Ferguson has been treated for carpal tunnel syndrome. R. 203. Ferguson visited South Shore Orthopedics LLC (“South Shore”) on December 30, 2015. R. 747. During this visit, John Kadzielski, M.D. discussed the results of an EMG test from August 25, 2015, which indicated severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome in the upper extremities. R. 747. Dr. Kadzielski ordered an injection in the right hand, which was performed on December 30, 2015, and a left carpal tunnel release surgery, which was done on January 5, 2016. R. 747-49. In a follow up appointment on January 20, 2016, Dr. Kadzielski noted that Ferguson was doing well after the surgery and saw improving “paresthesias of the left median nerve distribution.” R. 751. Ferguson indicated that the surgery went well and that she felt less pain in her left hand. R. 203.

         2. Degenerative Diseases

         Ferguson underwent an x-ray from Victor Valley Advanced Imaging on October 29, 2013 that showed there was no “definite fractures or sublaxations” and that there was “straightening of the cervical lordosis, ” resulting in a diagnosis of degenerative joint disease. R. 952, 977. The internal medicine consultation from MedPro Services Inc. (“MedPro”) on July 24, 2014 noted a tenderness in Ferguson's lumbar spine and knees but also that the range of motion of her back and knees was within normal limits. R. 679. Over a year later, on September 15, 2015, Chris Sambaziotis, M.D. an orthopedic surgeon, evaluated Ferguson for her left knee pain. R. 884. Dr. Sambaziotis noted that Ferguson reported mild pain that worsened with ambulation and presented treatment options such as physical therapy, activity modification, weight loss, steroid injection and total knee replacement. R. 886. Ferguson also had an x-ray of her foot on June 17, 2016 which found “mild degenerative changes” and “plantar calcaneal spur.” R. 899, 901, 903.

         3. Thyroid Disorder

         Ferguson has also been treated for thyroid disorder. R. 680. When Ferguson was first diagnosed with Graves' Disease, a disease causing hypothyroidism, [2] she lost one hundred pounds. R. 784. She underwent treatment with radioactive iodine in 2004. R. 680. She receives radioiodine treatment and is on levothyroxine to treat her hypothyroidism. R. 680, 784.

         4. Mental Disorders

         After losing her mother and three sisters over a period of three years, Ferguson has consistently seen mental health professionals. R. 659. On February 12, 2014, Ferguson was admitted to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center (“Arrowhead”) for mood disorder, R. 654, 659, stabilized with medicine and discharged on February 14, 2014, R. 657-58. Ferguson received outpatient counseling from Mary Hopwood, NP at Granite Medical Group (“Granite”). R. 1188. Granite records indicate that Ferguson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had manic and depressive episodes. See, e.g., R. 784, 1188. In a MedPro consultation, dated July 24, 2014, Dr. Karamlou also records that Ferguson had been taking twenty-five milligrams of Lamotrigine and Seroquel to help treat her mental conditions. R. 677.

         Martina Voglmaier, Ph.D., evaluated Ferguson and performed neuropsychological testing at Nova Psychiatric Service (“NPS”) on June 5, 2016 and August 16, 2016. R. 1046. She noted characteristics such as disorganized speech and difficulty recovering following error, R. 1143, Ferguson's ability to sustain attention was impaired. R. 1046.

         Ferguson saw her treating psychiatrist, Andrey Gagarin, M.D., beginning in July 2015. R. 208-09. Dr. Gagarin reported, in a December 2016 letter, that Ferguson has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and major depression. R. 1185. The letter further noted that Ferguson's mental health conditions manifest in rapid speech, compulsive activities, hyperactive behavior, disturbed sleep, lack of energy and lack of interest in her daily activities. Id. Dr. Gagarin concluded that he “foresee[s] her mental health conditions lasting more than 12 months.” R. 1186.

         5. Obesity

         Ferguson had a “fobi pouch” procedure, a form of gastric bypass surgery, in 1996. R. 863. Because she had a weight loss procedure done before she was told that “she would not be a candidate for another weight loss procedure.” R. 779, 963.

         B. Before the ALJ

         1. ALJ Hearing

         At the January 6, 2017 administrative hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Ferguson and James Soldner, a vocational expert (“VE”). R. 186.

         a) Ferguson&# ...

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