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Kristina D. B. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maine

March 28, 2019

KRISTINA D. B., Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM DECISION [1]

          John H. Rich III United States Magistrate Judge.

         This Social Security Disability (“SSD”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) supportably found the plaintiff capable of performing past relevant work as a medical coder or, in the alternative, other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The plaintiff seeks remand on the bases that the ALJ erred in (i) deeming her thyroid impairment nonsevere, (ii) failing to capture all limitations flowing from her atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy in assessing her physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”), (iii) providing no explanation of the extent to which she assessed obesity-related limitations, (iv) construing raw medical evidence in determining her mental RFC, and (v) relying on flawed testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”). See Statement of Specific Errors (“Statement of Errors”) (ECF No. 13) at 1-20. I find no reversible error and, accordingly, affirm the commissioner's decision.

         Pursuant to the commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Goodermote v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982), the ALJ found, in relevant part, that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018, Finding 1, Record at 56; that she had the severe impairments of atrial fibrillation, cardiomyopathy, morbid obesity status post gastric bypass, major depressive disorder, and borderline personality disorder, Finding 3, id.; that she had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the additional limitations that she could occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crawl, needed to avoid concentrated exposure to respiratory irritants such as perfume, ragweed, dust, fumes, and mold, could not work with sharp objects, and could interact on a superficial basis with coworkers, the general public, and supervisors, Finding 5, id. at 59; that she could perform past relevant work as a medical coder, which did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by her RFC, Finding 6, id. at 63; that, in the alternative, considering her age (48 years old, defined as a younger individual, on her alleged disability onset date, February 15, 2013), 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, id. at 64; and that she, therefore, had not been disabled from February 15, 2013, her alleged onset date of disability, through the date of the decision, November 29, 2016, Finding 7, id. at 65. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 1-3, making the decision the final determination of the commissioner, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; Dupuis v. Sec'y 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. Sec'y 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. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

         The ALJ reached 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.

         In the alternative, the ALJ 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); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5; 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. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 294 (1st Cir. 1986).

         I. Discussion

         A. Step 2: Finding of Nonsevere Thyroid Impairment

          The ALJ deemed the plaintiff's hyperthyroidism nonsevere, explaining that, “aside from requiring medication management, there is no indication that th[is] condition[] result[ed] in any functional limitations.” Record at 57.

         The plaintiff challenges this finding on the bases that (i) her hyperthyroidism contributed to her atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy and required multiple medication adjustments from December 2014 through March 2016, when it was finally brought under control, (ii) agency nonexamining consultant J.H. Hall, M.D., who reviewed her case on reconsideration on January 23, 2015, deemed her hyperthyroidism severe, and, (iii) yet, the ALJ rejected the Hall opinion in favor of that of agency nonexamining consultant John MacEachran, M.D., who assessed her case on initial review on August 7, 2014, before her hyperthyroidism was even diagnosed. See Statement of Errors at 2-4; Record at 196, 198-99, 222, 225-27.

         Mindful of this court's admonishment that “an error at Step 2 is uniformly considered harmless, and thus not to require remand, unless the plaintiff can demonstrate how the error would necessarily change the outcome of the plaintiff's claim[, ]” Bolduc v. Astrue, Civil No. 09-220-B-W, 2010 WL 276280, at *4 n.3 (D. Me. Jan. 19, 2010), the plaintiff contends that the error is harmful because, whereas Dr. MacEachran deemed her capable of light work, Dr. Hall deemed her capable only of sedentary work for the period after December 31, 2014. See Statement of Errors at 4; Record at 198-99, 219, 225-27.

         Nonetheless, as the commissioner rejoins, see Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (“Opposition”) (ECF No. 15) at 2-4, any error is harmless. Because, at Step 4, the ALJ deemed the plaintiff capable of returning to past relevant work as a medical coder, which is classified as sedentary, see Record at 63, her adoption of the Hall opinion limiting the plaintiff to sedentary work would have made no difference. While the plaintiff separately challenges the ALJ's reliance on the VE's testimony concerning that job, see Statement of Errors at 18-19, that challenge is unavailing for the reasons discussed below.

         B. Step 4: Limitations from Atrial Fibrillation, Cardiomyopathy

         The plaintiff next argues that the ALJ failed to capture the full panoply of her limitations stemming from her severe impairments of atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy when she adopted the opinion of Dr. MacEachern over that of Dr. Hall. See id. at 5-10. She contends that, in so doing, the ALJ necessarily interpreted the raw medical evidence unseen by Dr. MacEachern. See id. at 10. However, as discussed above, the adoption of the Hall opinion would not have changed the ALJ's determination that the plaintiff retained the capacity to perform past relevant work as a medical coder. Any error, accordingly, is harmless.

         C. Step 4: ...


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