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Hadley v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maine

December 28, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN H. RICH, III, Magistrate Judge.

This Social Security Disability ("SSD") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge supportably found the plaintiff capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The plaintiff seeks remand on the bases that the administrative law judge erred in declining to credit her testimony fully and in making a residual functional capacity ("RFC") determination unsupported by substantial evidence. See Itemized Statement of Specific Errors ("Statement of Errors") (ECF No. 17) at 4-6. Because the administrative law judge's credibility and RFC determinations are supported by substantial evidence, I affirm the commissioner's decision.

Pursuant to 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 of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2011, Finding 1, Record at 18; that she had a severe impairment of bilateral shoulder dysfunction, Finding 3, id.; that she retained the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that she should not lift and carry more than 10 pounds frequently, she could sit, stand, and walk for up to six hours each in an eight-hour workday, she could occasionally push and pull up to 10 pounds with her bilateral upper extremities, she should not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, she should not crawl, she should avoid all overhead work but could occasionally reach forward and laterally for weights up to 10 pounds, she could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch, and she should avoid exposure to unprotected heights and vibrating tools, Finding 5, id. at 20; that, considering her age (51 years old, defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age, on her alleged disability onset date, October 6, 2009), education (at least high school), work experience (transferability of skills immaterial), and RFC, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform, Findings 7-10, id. at 23-24; and that she, therefore, had not been disabled from October 6, 2009, through the date of the decision, October 16, 2012, Finding 11, id. at 24. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 1-4, making the decision 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, 623 (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).

The statement of errors also implicates Step 4 of the sequential evaluation process, at which stage the claimant bears the burden of proving inability to return to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). At this step, the commissioner must make findings of the plaintiff's RFC and the physical and mental demands of past work and determine whether the plaintiff's RFC would permit performance of that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); Social Security Ruling 82-62 ("SSR 82-62"), reprinted in West's Social Security Reporting Service Rulings 1975-1982, at 813.

I. Discussion

A. Credibility Determination

The plaintiff testified before the administrative law judge that she suffered from severe shoulder pain, hand pain, and symptoms of anxiety and depression, which prevented her from working. See Record at 21. She stated that, following shoulder surgery, she had a hard time lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk, she had trouble driving because her hands went numb, and a typical day consisted of waking up at 6:00 a.m., taking her pills, sitting on the porch and smoking a cigarette, making her bed, and going for short walks. See id. at 21-22. She alleged anxiety issues and problems with alcohol, although she testified that she had been sober since Mother's Day 2012. See id. at 22.

The administrative law judge found the plaintiff's statements concerning her symptoms not credible to the extent that they were inconsistent with his RFC finding, explaining:

The [plaintiff's] testimony is internally inconsistent and not supported by the evidence of record. The [plaintiff] admitted that she smokes cigarettes on a regular basis, even though she alleged some breathing problems. She noted in her Function Report[] that she is able to drive, shop, cook simple meals, go out alone, manage her finances, socialize with friends and family, maintain attention and concentration, follow instructions, and handle routine changes. All these activities show much higher functioning than alleged. Although the inconsistent information provided by the [plaintiff] may not be the result of a conscious intention to mislead, nevertheless the inconsistencies suggest that the information provided by the [plaintiff] generally may not be entirely reliable.

Id. (citation omitted).

The administrative law judge acknowledged that the plaintiff had been treated for shoulder pain over the prior three years but deemed her shoulder problems not as severe as alleged, noting that treating physician Albert Aniel, M.D., did not mention any problem with the plaintiff's shoulder in the most recent progress note of record, dated January 23, 2012, instead indicating that the plaintiff was smoking and drinking, even though she was advised to stop. See id. at 22, 430-32. He pointed out that, on that date, the plaintiff denied any pain, shortness of breath, or fatigue, and her examination was normal, despite obesity. See id.

He observed that James D. Kuhn, M.D., the plaintiff's orthopedic specialist, noted in October 2011 that she had good cervical range of motion and "intact motor and sensory function distally" but had issues lifting her arm, and that agency examining consultant Renato Medrano, M.D., performed an April 2011 examination during which he found normal motor strength and normal range of motion, although the plaintiff had some shoulder tenderness and restriction. See id. at 22, 424-25, 427. He pointed out that, nonetheless, Dr. Medrano ...

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