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Warneka v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 31, 2015

Trudy E. Warneka,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration.


PAUL BARBADORO, District Judge.

Trudy Warneka seeks judicial review of a ruling by the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Warneka claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in failing to call a medical advisor to assist him in determining the onset date of her claimed disability. For the reasons set forth below, I vacate the decision of the Commissioner and remand for further administrative proceedings.


A. Stipulated Facts

Pursuant to Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of material facts, which is part of the court's record (Doc. No. 14). The facts relevant to the disposition of this matter are discussed below.

B. Procedural History

Warneka, a former medical assistant, was 45 years old when she filed an application for DIB. She primarily claimed that her migraines, depression, anxiety, obesity, degenerative disc disease, and chronic shoulder pain were disabling conditions as of her date last insured ("DLI"). She alleged a disability onset date of May 15, 2001, which was her last day of work. Her DLI was December 31, 2003. Warneka's application was initially denied on July 17, 2009 because of lack of medical evidence of disability before her DLI. After the initial denial, Warneka submitted extensive medical records dating back to 1999.

On November 2, 2010, ALJ Robert Klingebiel held a hearing on Warneka's claim. He found her not disabled on December 15, 2010. The Decision Review Board vacated ALJ Klingebiel's decision and remanded. On May 17, 2012, ALJ Paul Martin held a hearing on Warneka's claim. He issued an unfavorable decision on May 25, 2012, which is the decision being appealed here.

In his decision, ALJ Martin followed the five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At Step One, he found that Warneka did not engage in substantial gainful activity between her alleged onset date and her DLI. At Step Two, he determined that her migraines were a severe impairment through her DLI but that her mental health limitations and her other physical impairments were not severe as of her DLI. At Step Three, he found that Warneka's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment.

ALJ Martin determined that Warneka had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") through her date last insured to perform "medium work[1]... except she can perform all postural activities on an occasional basis and can reach overhead only occasionally." Tr. at 22. In determining her RFC, the ALJ noted evidence that conflicted with Warneka's reports of disabling migraines. He gave no weight to Warneka's treating physicians' opinions because they "do not indicate that the claimant's current limitations date back to 2003." Tr. at 25. The ALJ gave "some weight" to the opinion of state agency consultant Dr. Charles Meader, who opined that Warneka was capable of "light exertion work"[2] and who wrote his opinion before Warneka submitted her extensive past medical records. Tr. at 25; Doc. No. 14 at 1, 22. Finally, at Step Four, the ALJ found that Warneka was capable of performing her past relevant work as of her DLI, and therefore was not disabled before her DLI.


Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), I am authorized to review the pleadings submitted by the parties and the administrative record and enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the "final decision" of the Commissioner. My review "is limited to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts [based] upon the proper quantum of evidence." Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000).

Findings of fact made by the ALJ are accorded deference as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. Id . Substantial evidence to support factual findings exists "if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support his conclusion.'" Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (per curiam) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)). If the substantial evidence standard is met, factual findings are conclusive even if the record "arguably could support a different conclusion." Id. at 770. Findings are not conclusive, however, if they are derived by "ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts." Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam). The ALJ is ...

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