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Beaune v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

July 10, 2015

Joanne Michelle Beaune,
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration. Opinion No. 2015 DNH 136


PAUL BARBADORO, District Judge.

Joanne Michelle Beaune seeks judicial review of a ruling by the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Beaune claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ") erred in finding that Beaune was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, I deny Beaune's request for remand and affirm the decision of the Commissioner.


A. Stipulated Facts

Pursuant to this Court's Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of material facts (Doc. No. 15), which is part of the court's record. See LR 9.1. The facts relevant to the disposition of this matter are discussed below.

B. Procedural History

Beaune is a 47-year-old woman who previously worked as an assembler, hotel front desk clerk, and a material handler (or racker). On May 13, 2011, she filed a claim for DIB alleging disability beginning November 15, 2009 (the "onset date"). Her claim was denied on August 17, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on August 18, 2011. Beaune then filed a written request for hearing on August 31, 2011. She appeared and testified at a hearing on August 10, 2012, as well as at a follow-up hearing on January 20, 2013. On March 20, 2013, the ALJ determined that Beaune was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled before her alleged onset date and the date of his decision.

The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process used to determine whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, he found that Beaune had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. At step two, he determined that Beaune's depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were severe impairments. At step three, he found that Beaune's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. At step four, he found that Beaune was capable of performing her past relevant work as an assembler or material handler and therefore was not disabled from the alleged onset date through the date of his decision.

The Appeals Council denied Beaune's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision subject to judicial review. On May 22, 2014, Beaune filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.


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 responsible for determining issues of credibility and for drawing inferences from evidence in the record. Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769. It is the role of the ALJ, not the court, to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Id.


Beaune contends that the ALJ erred (1) in determining her residual functional capacity; (2) in assessing her credibility; and (3) in adequately developing the record. I address each argument in turn.

A. Residual Functional Capacity

Beaune first attacks the ALJ's residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment. The ALJ found that Beaune had the RFC to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she would have moderate limitation in social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace, with moderate meaning more than slight but still able to function satisfactorily.

Tr. at 81. Beaune contends that the ALJ's RFC determination fails to meet the specificity requirements of Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, fails to assign appropriate weight to the various medical source opinions in the record, and fails to address the requirements of SSR 85-15p. See SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1; SSR 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at *4.

1. SSR 96-8p

Beaune first claims that the ALJ's RFC finding is "essentially meaningless with regard to describing her functional limitations" and "does not provide the specificity required by SSR 96-8p." Doc. No. 10-1 at 6-7.

According to SSR 96-8p, before an ALJ determines a claimant's RFC, he "must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions in... 20 C.F.R. 404.1545[(c)]." SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. For individuals with mental impairments, the function-by-function assessment must include their "abilities to: understand, carry out, and remember instructions; use judgment in making work-related decisions; respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers and work situations; and deal with changes in a routine setting." Id. at *6. The ALJ "must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts... and nonmedical evidence..." Id. at *7. The policy behind this rationale is clear: Without a function-byfunction assessment, an ALJ may "overlook[] some of an individual's limitations or restrictions, " which "could lead to an incorrect use of an exertional category to find that the individual is able to do past relevant work" and "an erroneous finding that the individual is not disabled." Id. at *4.

The SSR 96-8p function-by-function assessment is distinct from the so-called "paragraph B" criteria. Compare 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404 Subpt. P, App'x 1 § 12.00(C)(1)-(4) with SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *6. The "paragraph B" criteria include: (1) restriction of activities of daily living; (2) difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) episodes of decompensation. Id . ALJs evaluate the "paragraph B" criteria at steps two and three of the five-step sequential process, in contrast to the SSR 96-8p function-by-function assessment, which ...

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