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Nicole D. F. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maine

June 28, 2019

NICOLE D. F., Plaintiff
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant



         This Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) supportably found the plaintiff capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The plaintiff seeks remand on the basis that the ALJ erred in determining the functional limitations stemming from three severe impairments - neck pain, headaches, and obesity - without the benefit of medical expertise and, in the case of her obesity, in contravention of Social Security Ruling 02-1p (“SSR 02-1p”). See Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (“Statement of Errors”) (ECF No. 9) at 5-13.[3] I agree that the ALJ's handling of the plaintiff's obesity fails to comport with SSR 02-1p, warranting remand. I need not and do not reach the plaintiff's remaining points of error.

         Pursuant to the commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 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 had the severe impairments of osteoarthritis, herniated disc with radiculopathy, status post lumbar laminectomy, headaches, neck pain, obesity, generalized anxiety disorder with panic attacks, and depression, Finding 2, Record at 14; that she had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except that she was limited to three hours of standing or walking per day but needed to alternate from sitting to standing or vice versa for five minutes each hour, could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps or stairs, could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, could tolerate frequent exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and sloped or uneven surfaces, was limited to performing simple, repetitive tasks, could not tolerate interaction with the general public, could not tolerate working in large groups, and could tolerate only occasional change in the work routine, Finding 4, id. at 15-16; that, considering her age (24 years old, defined as a younger individual, on the date her application was filed, December 28, 2012), 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 6-9, id. at 23-24; and that she, therefore, had not been disabled from December 28, 2012, the date her application was filed, through April 11, 2018, the date of the decision, Finding 10, id. at 24-25. 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. § 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. § 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 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. § 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. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 294 (1st Cir. 1986).

         I. Discussion

         A. Background

         The plaintiff filed the instant SSI application on December 28, 2012. See Finding 1, Record at 13. After her claim was denied both initially and on reconsideration, an ALJ held a hearing on May 13, 2015, following which, on July 17, 2015, she issued a decision denying the claim. See id. at 166, 176. The plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appeals Council, which, by decision dated September 21, 2016, remanded it to the ALJ for a supplemental hearing. See id. at 184-85. The plaintiff received notice that a new hearing had been scheduled for March 21, 2018, at which both a psychological and a medical expert, as well as a vocational expert, would appear. See id. at 328, 331, 350, 353. Prior to the hearing, a new ALJ was assigned to hear the case. See id. at 65. A psychological expert and a vocational expert appeared and testified, but no medical expert appeared. See id. at 63-64. On April 11, 2018, the ALJ issued the instant decision denying the plaintiff's claim. See Finding 10, id. at 24-25. In so doing, he gave “great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Johnson, “who reviewed the medical evidence at the reconsideration level on January 22, 2014.” Id. at 22 (citation omitted). He explained:

[Dr. Johnson's] opinion was offered after the [plaintiff]'s lumbar laminectomy and the evidence submitted since his review does not show much change. He opined the [plaintiff] could perform a limited range of light work with occasional postural limits and standing/walking limited to only three hours. I have adopted most of his findings but have included additional limitations to the length of time she could stand/walk and have provided for her to have a sit/stand option that would accommodate her complaints of pain with prolonged sitting/standing.


         As the plaintiff notes, see Statement of Errors at 3, the bulk of the medical evidence of record, including that pertaining to her neck disorder, obesity, and headaches, was submitted after Dr. Johnson's review, see Record at 30-33. Dr. Johnson found that the plaintiff had a severe impairment of spine disorders and assessed limitations related to her lumbar spine. See id. at 155, 157-59. He did not note review of any records pertaining to her cervical spine, obesity, or headaches. See id. at 154-55.

         B. Analysis

         As the plaintiff observes, see Statement of Errors at 10 n.12, she reported to treating nurse practitioner Susan Chessa, F.N.P., on March 15, 2016, that she had gained 80 pounds in the prior year, and F.N.P. Chessa determined that she had a Body Mass. Index (“BMI”) of 39.6, see Record at 934-95. On April 5, 2017, F.N.P. Chessa recorded a BMI of 36.7. See id. at 1032. Both findings placed the plaintiff in the second-highest of three levels of obesity. See SSR 02-1p, reprinted in West's Social Security Reporting Service Rulings 1983-1991 (Supp. 2018), at 250. Without discussion, the ALJ deemed the plaintiff's obesity severe. See Finding 2, Record at 14. He did not address obesity in determining her RFC. See id. at 16-23.

         The plaintiff contends that, in the absence of an expert's consideration of the impact of her obesity, “the record was legally insufficient to support whatever conclusions the ALJ reached as to how the added contribution of [her] significant post-surgery weight gain further limited her ability to perform such physical functions as lifting and carrying, standing and walking, bending, stooping, etc.[, ]” which is not readily apparent to a layperson. Statement of Errors at 10-11 (footnote omitted). She adds that the ALJ failed to follow ...

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