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Poissant v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Maine

March 30, 2014

DONNA POISSANT, Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

Plaintiff DONNA POISSANT represented by FRANCIS JACKSON JACKSON & MACNICHOL

Defendant SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION COMMISSIONER represented by NATASHA OELTJEN SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION OFFICE OF GENERAL COUNSEL, REGION I J.F.K. FEDERAL BUILDING SUSAN D. BELLER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION OFFICE OF GENERAL COUNSEL, REGION I 13 J.F.K. FEDERAL BUILDING

REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION [1]

John H. Rich III United States Magistrate Judge

The plaintiff in this Social Security Disability (“SSD”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) appeal contends that the administrative law judge wrongly rejected the opinions of her treating physician, posed an erroneous hypothetical question to the vocational expert, and relied on otherwise erroneous testimony from the vocational expert. I recommend that the commissioner’s decision be vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings.

In accordance with the commissioner’s sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Goodermote v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982), the administrative law judge found, in relevant part, that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements for SSD through December 31, 2010, Finding 1, Record at 15; that she suffered from mild bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status post successful carpal tunnel release surgery, and mild left ulnar neuropathy, producing numbness in the left fifth digit, impairments that were severe but which, considered separately or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed in Appendix 1 to 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P (the “Listings”), Findings 2 and 3, id. at 15-29; that she retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for a reduced range of work at the light exertional level, as she could only occasionally crawl, must avoid forceful gripping or grasping with her hands, could only occasionally handle and finger, must avoid exposure to extreme cold, must avoid using vibrating hand tools, and must avoid unprotected heights, Finding 5, id. at 29-30; that she was unable to perform any past relevant work, Finding 6, id. at 32; that, given her age (34 on the alleged date of onset, October 21, 2009), at least high school education, work experience, and RFC, using the Medical-Vocational Rules in Appendix 2 to 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P (the “Grid”), as a framework for decision-making, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform, Findings 7-10, Record at 32; and that she, therefore, had not been under a disability, as that term is defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged date of onset through the date of the decision, April 9, 2012, Finding 11, id. at 34. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 1-3, making it the final determination of the commissioner, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; Dupuis v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 869 F.2d 622, 523 (1st Cir. 1989).

The standard of review of the commissioner’s decision is whether the determination made is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Manso-Pizarro v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996). In other words, the determination must be supported by such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion drawn. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Rodriguez v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

The administrative law judge reached Step 5 of the sequential evaluation process, at which stage the burden of proof shifts to the commissioner to show that a claimant can perform work other than her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7. The record must contain substantial evidence in support of the commissioner’s findings regarding the plaintiff’s RFC to perform such other work. Rosado v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 294 (1st Cir. 1986).

I. Discussion

A. Treating Physician

The plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge committed reversible error by “improperly reject[ing]” the opinions of Dr. Joseph Wolfson, her treating family practitioner. Plaintiff’s Itemized Statement of Errors (“Itemized Statement”) (ECF No. 15) at 5. Specifically, she asserts that Dr. Wolfson opined that she was limited to reaching in all directions and in handling to less than two and one-half hours per day, Record at 705, and that this is inconsistent with the administrative law judge’s conclusion that she could handle objects occasionally, id. at 29-30. She contends that the administrative law judge “failed to adequately explain his reasoning” in adopting the opinion of a state-agency reviewing physician, Dr. Richard Chamberlin, rather than that of Dr. Wolfson. Id. at 6.

The administrative law judge addressed these opinions as follows:

In assessing the claimant’s residual functional capacity, the undersigned has accorded great evidentiary weight to the November 22, 2010 opinion of Dr. Chamberl[]in (Exhibit 12F), a state agency consulting physician. He was of the opinion that in spite of her bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (and surgery for it), she could occasionally lift and/or carry (including upward pulling) up to twenty pounds; that she could frequently lift and/or carry (including upward pulling) up to ten pounds; that she could stand or/or walk (with normal breaks) for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; that she could sit (with normal breaks) for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; that she could push and/or pull (including operation of hand and/or foot controls), without limitation, except insofar as she was limited in terms of the forces she might exert in lifting and/or carrying; that she could not climb on ladders, ropes or scaffolds; that she could occasionally kneel; that she could not crawl; that her ability to engage in handling (gross manipulation) was limited in that she should avoid constant handling; that she should avoid even moderate exposure to vibration and extreme cold (i.e., “avoid cold and vibratory environments”).
* * * In February, 2012 Dr. Wolfson described the functional limitations he believed resulted from her upper extremity impairments and anxiety (Exhibit 20F). He was of the opinion that she could occasionally lift and carry 20 pounds and that she could frequently lift and carry unspecified weights less than ten pounds. He opined that she had limited abilities to push and pull with her upper extremities. He further opined that she could never climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds; that she could only occasionally balance; that her ability to reach in all directions (including overhead) was limited to less than two hours per day, that her ability to engage in gross manipulation was limited to less than two hours per day, that she had limited ability to tolerate exposure to vibration; that she had limited ability to tolerate exposure to “[h]azards”, including machinery and heights. His opinion has been accorded some evidentiary weight, although it describes some limitations that are not adequately explained (e.g., limitations relating to climbing stairs and ramps, balancing and reaching). To the extent it differs from Dr. Chamberl[]in’s opinion (Exhibit 12F), it is accorded relatively less evidentiary weight.

Id. at 31-31 (emphasis in original). In footnotes, the administrative law judge noted that Dr. Wolfson frequently did not comply with the requests on the form that recorded his conclusions that he describe the medical and clinical findings that ...


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