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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

July 17, 2015

John Oliver Brown
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration. Opinion No. 2015 DNH 141


JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE, District Judge.

John Oliver Brown appeals the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge at the SSA ("ALJ") ruled that, despite Brown's severe impairments (osteoarthritis in his left knee, Hepatitis C, affective disorder, and a history of substance abuse), he retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and, as a result, is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Appeals Council later denied Brown's request for review of the ALJ's decision, see id. § 404.968(a), with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on Brown's application, see id. § 404.981. Brown then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

Brown has filed a motion to reverse the decision. See L.R. 9.1(b)(1). He contends that the ALJ (1) lacked substantial evidence to support his conclusion as to Brown's RFC and (2) erred in his assessment of Brown's credibility. The Acting Commissioner of the SSA maintains that the ALJ committed no error and has cross-moved for an order affirming the decision. See L.R. 9.1(d). After careful consideration, the court agrees with the Acting Commissioner that the ALJ committed no reversable error and accordingly grants the Acting Commissioner's motion to affirm (and denies Brown's motion to reverse) the ALJ's decision.

I. Applicable legal standard

The court limits its review of a final decision of the SSA "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., 2 211 F.3d 652. The court will uphold the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, which 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). Though the evidence may support multiple conclusions, the court will still uphold the ALJ's findings "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 Heath & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991).

II. Background

In assessing Brown's request for disability benefits, the ALJ engaged in the requisite five-step process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. He determined that Brown suffered from four severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the left knee, Hepatitis C, affective disorder, and a history of substance abuse. After finding that Brown's impairments did not meet or "medically equal" the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security Regulations, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926, the ALJ concluded that Brown retained the RFC "to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b)" with the following limitations:

[H]e could sit up to 6 hours and stand/walk up to 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. He could occasionally perform the postural activities.... He would be limited to simple, repetitive tasks. He could maintain concentration, persistence, and pace, for one hour at a time before having a 2-3 minute break before continuing on for another hour. The claimant could interact with coworkers and supervisors on routine matters, but he should avoid more than superficial interactions with the public.

Admin. R. at 26. The ALJ then determined that Brown was unable to perform his past relevant work as an automobile mechanic helper, automobile transmission mechanic, gas station attendant, and service manager of an automobile specialist store. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565. At step five, where the SSA bears the burden of showing that a claimant can perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the economy, Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001), the ALJ concluded that Brown could perform such jobs as inspection table worker, preparer (polishing jewelry), and production sorter or bench work (sorting nuts and bolts. Therefore, the ALJ found, Brown was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

III. Analysis

Brown raises essentially four issues in this appeal, though all are closely related. First, Brown contends that the ALJ's assessment of Brown's physical RFC is not supported by substantial evidence in the record because the ALJ relied primarily on the opinion of a non-examining expert who had not reviewed the full record. As a related matter, he also argues that the ALJ incorrectly weighed the opinion evidence concerning Brown's physical limitations, giving more weight to the nonexamining expert's opinion over that of Brown's treating physician. Third, Brown challenges the ALJ's assessment of the credibility of Brown's statements about the intensity and limiting effect of the pain he felt in his left knee and his fatigue. Finally, Brown contends that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's assessment of Brown's mental RFC. For the reasons detailed below, the court finds that the ALJ did not err in any of these assessments.

A. Physical RFC determination

In evaluating Brown's RFC as relating to his physical disabilities, the ALJ had three medical opinions at his disposal: that of Dr. Ricardo Gonzales, Brown's treating physician; that of Dr. Louis Rosenthall, a state agency medical consultant; and that of Dr. William Windler, a consultative examiner. The ALJ patterned his RFC finding on the June 2, 2011, residual functional capacity assessment of Dr. Rosenthall, the state agency reviewer. Dr. Rosenthall indicated that Brown could stand or walk for 2 hours and sit for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. He further opined that Brown could occasionally lift or carry 20 pounds, frequently lift or carry 10 pounds, occasionally perform the various postural limitations, and that Brown's ability to push and pull was unlimited. Dr. Rosenthall discussed the medical support for these conclusions, noting that the record reflected that Brown used a cane and complained of fatigue, but that his "[g]ait and station were normal." Admin. R. at 359.

Brown maintains that the ALJ erred in relying on Dr. Rosenthall's opinion because Dr. Rosenthall did not examine Brown and did not review the entire record. Specifically, Dr. Rosenthall - whose opinion issued on June 2, 2011 - did not review Brown's treatment record after that date or the opinion of Dr. Gonzales, which was issued on October 4, 2012. Thus, Brown ...

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