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Labrecque v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of New Hampshire

May 13, 2015

Bettylea Lydia Labrecque
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2015 DNH 098




Bettylea Lydia Labrecque appeals the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) denial of her application for disability benefits. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Labrecque suffered from depression, borderline intellectual functioning, and attention deficit disorder. The ALJ nevertheless found that Labrecque was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act because she has sufficient residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The SSA Appeals Council subsequently denied Labrecque’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision, rendering the ALJ’s decision final. Labrecque timely appealed to this court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In due course, Labrecque moved to reverse the SSA’s decision and SSA’s Acting Commissioner moved to affirm the denial of benefits.

The gravamen of Labrecque’s argument is that the ALJ erred in considering certain testimony from a vocational expert in determining Labrecque’s RFC and her ability to work. She also claims the ALJ failed to question the expert about an alleged conflict between the expert’s testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. After careful consideration of the parties’ arguments and the administrative record, the court finds the record evidence sufficient to support the ALJ's decision. Therefore, Labrecque’s motion is denied and the Acting Commissioner’s motion is granted.

I. Standard of Review

The court’s review of SSA’s final decision “is limited to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). The ALJ’s decision will be upheld if it supported by substantial evidence, that is, “such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). It is something less than a preponderance but “more than a mere scintilla.” Id.; Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm’n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not preclude a finding of substantial evidence. Consolo, 383 U.S. at 620. Accordingly, the ALJ’s resolution of evidentiary conflicts must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence, even if contrary results are supportable. Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 1987). The court next turns to the ALJ’s decision.

II. Background[1]

In analyzing Labrecque’s application, the ALJ invoked the required five-step process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. First, he concluded that Labrecque had not engaged in substantial work activity after the October 2011 benefit application filing date. Next, the ALJ determined that Labrecque suffered from three severe impairments: depression, borderline intellectual functioning and attention deficit disorder.[2] See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1920(c). At the third step, the ALJ concluded that Labrecque’s impairments, either individually or collectively, did not meet or “medically equal” one of the listed impairments in the Social Security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. The ALJ next found that Labrecque had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional limits, but with several non-exertional limitations: she may only have superficial interaction with the general public; she is limited to performing simple, routine tasks with no detailed instructions and only occasional decision-making; and she may be subject to no more than occasional workplace changes. Given that the ALJ found that Labrecque had no past relevant work history, the ALJ proceeded to step five, at which the SSA bears the burden of showing that a claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001). Here, the ALJ, relying heavily on testimony from a vocational expert, found that Labrecque’s RFC would permit her to perform such jobs as photographic mounter (of which there approximately 230 jobs in New Hampshire and 49, 000 nationally), touch-up screener (500/20, 000); and optical goods polisher (130/73, 000). Accordingly, the ALJ found Labrecque not disabled, within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The final step is the focus of Labrecque’s appeal. The court addresses her arguments seriatim.

III. Analysis

1. Reasoning Ability

Labrecque first argues that the job descriptions the ALJ ultimately accepted require reasoning ability that exceeds Labrecque’s RFC because they all require the capacity to execute detailed instructions, yet the ALJ previously concluded that Labrecque could not do so. The court disagrees. As Labrecque correctly observes, the DOT assigns the three identified jobs a General Education Development Reasoning Development (GED-R) value of 2. And, Labrecque notes, that value requires a worker to be able to “apply commonsense understanding to carry out detailed but uninvolved written or oral instructions.” Labrecque argues that this requirement is inconsistent with the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the vocational expert, which asked him to consider an individual limited to, among other things, “simple, routine tasks [and] no detailed instructions; only occasional decision-making.”

As Judge McAuliffe recently observed, however, a “majority of district and circuit courts [have held] that an RFC limiting a claimant to ‘simple instructions’ does not, standing alone, eliminate positions identified in the DOT as requiring Level 2 reasoning.” Hebert v. Colvin, 2014 DNH 166, 15. Judge McAuliffe approvingly cited cases in the Districts of Maine and Massachusetts that adopted the reasoning of Meissl v. Barnhart, 403 F.Supp.2d 981, 983-84 (C.D. Cal. 2005),

which contrasted the Social Security Administration's separation of a claimant's ability to understand, remember, and carry out instructions into merely two categories (“simple” and “detailed”) with the DOT's more graduated scale of six reasoning levels, and determined that the use of the terms “simple” and “detailed” in the Social Security regulations cannot necessarily be equated with the use of the same words in the GED reasoning scale. The court in Meissl also highlighted the fact that the term “detailed” in the GED reasoning level 2 appears as part of the phrase “detailed but uninvolved” - “that is, not a high level of reasoning.” Meissl, 403 F.Supp.2d at 985.

Hebert, 2014 DNH 166, 14-15 (quoting Lafrennie v. Astrue, No. 09-40143, 2011 WL 1103278, *7-*9 (D. Mass. Mar. 23, 2011)); see also Pepin v. Astrue, No. ...

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