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McLaughlin v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 8, 2015

Cheryl McLaughlin
v.
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration.

ORDER OPINION No. 2015 DNH 114.

LANDYA McCAFFERTY, District Judge.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Cheryl McLaughlin moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision to deny her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming her decision. For the reasons that follow, the matter is remanded to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this order.

Standard of Review

The applicable standard of review in this case provides, in pertinent part:

The [district] court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive
....

42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, the court "must uphold a denial of social security disability benefits unless the [Acting Commissioner] has committed a legal or factual error in evaluating a particular claim.'" Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of HHS, 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (quoting Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 885 (1989)).

As for the statutory requirement that the Acting Commissioner's findings of fact be supported by substantial evidence, "[t]he substantial evidence test applies not only to findings of basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from such facts." Alexandrou v. Sullivan, 764 F.Supp. 916, 917-18 (S.D.N.Y. 1991) (citing Levine v. Gardner, 360 F.2d 727, 730 (2d Cir. 1966)). In turn, "[s]ubstantial evidence is more than [a] mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Currier v. Sec'y of HEW, 612 F.2d 594, 597 (1st Cir. 1980) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). But, "[i]t is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] to determine issues of credibility and to draw inferences from the record evidence. Indeed, the resolution of conflicts in the evidence is for the [Commissioner], not the courts." Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of HHS, 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (citations omitted). Moreover, the court "must uphold the [Commissioner's] conclusion, even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence." Tsarelka v. Sec'y of HHS, 842 F.2d 529, 535 (1st Cir. 1988). Finally, when determining whether a decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, the court must "review[] the evidence in the record as a whole." Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769 (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of HHS, 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)).

Background

The parties have submitted a Joint Statement of Material Facts, document no. 11. That statement is part of the court's record and will be summarized here, rather than repeated in full.

In April of 2010, McLaughlin underwent arthroscopic surgery on her right shoulder that addressed several different physical conditions including a damaged rotator cuff. Thereafter, she was prescribed some pain medication and went through physical therapy. Ultimately, she was cleared for full work duty, and returned to her position as a supermarket cashier.

In October of 2010, McLaughlin began complaining of hip and back pain. In connection with those complaints, she has been diagnosed with a minimal disc bulge at the T11-T12, mildly asymmetric left disc bulge and facet degeneration at the L3-L4, sciatica, chronic pain syndrome, lumbar facet joint pain, lumbar facet syndrome, chronic pain syndrome of uncertain etiology, and fibromyalgia. Treatment for those conditions has included physical therapy, home exercise, various medications, lumbar medial branch blocks, and orthotics.

The record includes three formal assessments of McLaughlin's ability to perform work related physical activities, two of which are relevant to the analysis that follows.[1]

In a Medical Source Statement of Ability to Do Work-Related Activities (Physical), completed in May of 2012, Dr. John Ford opined, among other things, that McLaughlin could both occasionally and frequently lift and/or carry less than ten pounds. The parties' Joint Statement of Material Facts mentions treatment by a variety of medical professionals, but does not mention any treatment by Dr. Ford, nor does it indicate that Dr. Ford ever examined McLaughlin. However, Dr. Ford's medical source statement includes the following attestation:

Based on my education, training and experience and my evaluation of Ms. McLaughlin including treatment of her and review of records and history, the foregoing represents my professional opinion as to Cheryl McLaughlin's physical limitations from 10/1/10 to the present.

Tr. 423. That attestation appears to be mere boilerplate, and in the analysis that follows, the court presumes that Dr. Ford neither examined nor treated McLaughlin.

The record also includes a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment completed by Margaret Callahan.[2] Callahan is a single decisionmaker. A single decisionmaker is an employee of the Social Security Administration who has no medical credentials. See Stratton v. Astrue, 987 F.Supp.2d 135, 138 n.2 (D.N.H. 2012) (citing Goupil v. Barnhart, No. 03-34-P-H, 2003 WL 22466164, at *2 n.2 (D. Me. Oct. 31, 2001)). Callahan ...


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