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Waters v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of New Hampshire

March 7, 2014

Jennifer L. Waters
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration


Joseph N. Laplante Judge

Jennifer Waters appeals the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) denial of her applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and Supplemental Security Income. An administrative law judge at the SSA (“ALJ”) ruled that, despite Waters’ bipolar disorder, she retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper and laundry worker, and is therefore not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council later denied Waters’ request for review of the ALJ’s decision, see id. §§ 404.967, 416.1467, with the result that the ALJ’s decision became the SSA’s final decision on Waters’ applications, see id. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Waters then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

Waters has filed a motion to reverse the decision, see L.R. 9.1(b)(1), arguing, among other things, that the ALJ erred in concluding that Waters’ statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not credible, and in failing to make any findings concerning the physical and mental demands of Waters’ past relevant work. The Commissioner of the SSA maintains that the ALJ’s decision is unassailable, and has cross-moved for an order affirming it. See L.R. 9.1(d). After careful consideration, the court agrees with Waters that the ALJ’s decision was flawed for both of the reasons that Waters asserts, and thus grants her motion to reverse (and denies the Commissioner’s motion to affirm) the ALJ’s decision.

I. Credibility determination

In concluding that Waters retains the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, with two nonexertional limitations (i.e., she can only understand, remember, and carry out “short and simple” instructions, and cannot wait on the public), the ALJ considered Waters’ subjective reports concerning the symptoms of her impairment. Although the ALJ found that Waters’ bipolar disorder could reasonably be expected to cause these symptoms–-which included mood swings, impulsivity, periods of rage, anger outbursts, visual and aural hallucinations, and an inability to handle stress and routine changes--he concluded that Waters’ “statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible.” Admin. R. at 17. While there may well be good reasons for this conclusion, the court is unable to discern them from the ALJ’s written decision, and is thus constrained to reverse the decision.

SSA guidance recognizes that “individuals may experience their symptoms differently and may be limited by their symptoms to a greater or lesser extent than other individuals with the same medical impairments,” and that symptoms “sometimes suggest a greater severity of impairment than can be shown by objective medical evidence alone.” Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-7p, Titles II and XVI: Evaluation of Symptoms in Disability Claims: Assessing the Credibility of an Individual’s Statements, 1996 WL 374186, at *3 (S.S.A. 1996). In cases where an individual’s claim of disability cannot be determined solely on the basis of the objective medical evidence, ALJs must carefully consider “any statements of the individual concerning his or her symptoms,” and “then make a finding on the credibility of the individual’s statements about symptoms and their functional effects.” Id. at *3-4.

As SSR 96-7p explains:

The reasons for the finding must be grounded in the evidence and articulated in the determination or decision. It is not sufficient to make a conclusory statement that “the individual’s allegations have been considered” or that “the allegations are not credible.” It is also not enough for the adjudicator simply to recite the factors that are described in the regulations for evaluating symptoms. The determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the finding on credibility, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to the individual and to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the individual’s statements and the reasons for that weight. This documentation is necessary in order to give the individual a full and fair review of his or her claim, and in order to ensure a well-reasoned determination or decision.

Id. at *4. In other words, “[a]n ALJ is free to disbelieve a claimant’s subjective testimony; however, he or she must make specific findings as to the relevant evidence he considered in determining to disbelieve [the claimant],” i.e., by identifying “what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant’s complaints.” Kalloch v. Astrue, No. 11-cv-522, 2012 WL 4930986, at * (D.N.H. Sept. 18, 2012) (internal quotations and alterations omitted), rept. & rec. adopted, 2012 WL 4930983 (D.N.H. Oct. 15, 2012).

Here, the ALJ’s assertion that Waters’ statements regarding her symptoms were “not credible” can only be characterized as conclusory. That assertion is followed by several paragraphs discussing the record evidence, but it is by no means clear to the court that the ALJ meant these paragraphs to function as an explanation of his credibility determination. To the contrary, those paragraphs appear to be intended to explain the ALJ’s assessment of Waters’ RFC. In any event, the ALJ’s decision is not “sufficiently specific to make clear to” this court which of Waters’ specific complaints the ALJ found not credible, nor the specific evidence the ALJ considered in coming to that conclusion. It therefore fails to comply with SSR 96-7p.

Beyond that, the ALJ’s decision says very little about the factors articulated in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c) and 416.929(c), which an ALJ “must consider in addition to the objective medical evidence when assessing the credibility of an individual’s statements.”[1] SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 at *3. “Detailed written discussion” of those factors “is desirable” in order to enable a reviewing court to evaluate the basis for the ALJ’s credibility determination. Lalime v. Astrue, 2009 DNH 053, at 23-24 (citing Frustaglia v. Sec’y of HHS, 829 F.2d 192, 195 (1st Cir. 1987)). It is not strictly necessary; “an ALJ need not slavishly discuss each of the factors, and may satisfy her obligation to consider the factors simply by exploring them at the administrative hearing.” Morris v. Colvin, No. 12-cv-280-JL, 2013 WL 2455975, at *2 n.1 (D.N.H. June 6, 2013) (internal quotations and citations omitted). Here, however, the transcript of the administrative hearing is nearly as devoid of discussion regarding these factors as the ALJ’s decision itself.

In short, the ALJ’s decision “simply does not explain, in any way,” the reasons for his credibility determination, and thus must be reversed because the court cannot determine whether that determination is supported by substantial evidence.[2] Weaver v. Astrue, No. 10-cv-340-SM, 2011 WL 2580766, at *9 (D.N.H. May 25, 2011) (emphasis in original), rept. & rec. adopted, 2011 WL 2579776 (D.N.H. June 27, 2011). On remand, the ALJ should thoroughly explain the bases for any finding he makes regarding Waters’ credibility, as required by SSR 96-7p and §§ 404.1529(c) and 416.929(c).

II. Past relevant work

As mentioned at the outset, the ALJ also concluded that Waters is able to perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper and laundry worker. The written decision explained that the ALJ had compared Waters’ RFC “with the physical and mental demands” of that work, and found that Waters “is able to perform it as actually and generally performed.” Admin. R. at 19. The decision did not, however, explain what “the physical and mental ...

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