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Childers v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

July 17, 2015

Crystal Dora Childers
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration. Opinion No. 2015 DNH 142


JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE, District Judge.

Crystal Dora Childers appeals the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") denial of her application for disability benefits. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that Childers suffered from several severe impairments. The ALJ nevertheless found that Childers 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 Childers's request for review of the ALJ's decision, rendering the ALJ's decision final. Childers timely appealed to this court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In due course, Childers moved to reverse the SSA's decision and the SSA's Acting Commissioner moved to affirm the denial of benefits.

Childers asserts three arguments. First, she claims that the ALJ's RFC finding was flawed because the ALJ relied on his own lay knowledge and because the ALJ did not explain his reliance on a state agency medical consultant. Second, Childers argues that the ALJ did not give enough weight to evidence provided by a treating medical source. Finally, Childers argues that the ALJ's negative assessment of her credibility did not address all required factors.

After consideration of the parties' arguments and the administrative record, the court finds the record evidence sufficient to support the ALJ's decision. Therefore, Childers'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). This is less evidence 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 Childers's benefit application, the ALJ invoked the required five-step process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. First, he concluded that Childers had not engaged in substantial work activity after the alleged onset of her disability on July 12, 2011. Next, the ALJ determined that Childers suffered from several severe impairments: fibromyalgia, lumbosacral spondylosis, facet arthropathy at L4-L5, migraine headaches, asthma, allergic rhinitis, depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1920(c).[2] At the third step, the ALJ concluded that Childers'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, & 416.926. The ALJ next found that Childers had the RFC to perform:

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except standing and walking no more than four hours out of an eight hour work day; no crawling or climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasional kneeling, stooping, balancing, crouching or climbing of ramps and stairs; must avoid extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness or humidity; must avoid excessive vibration, fumes, odor, dust, gases, smoke, poorly ventilated areas; must avoid concentrated exposure to concentrated chemicals; cannot be in work environment where there are pets or animals of any kind; cannot work in a kitchen setting; further work is limited to simple, unskilled work; only occasional interaction with the public and only occasional interaction with co-workers.

Given that the ALJ found at step four that Childers could not perform any past relevant work, 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 on Childers's testimony, medical records and a vocational expert's testimony, concluded that Childers could perform such jobs as bench assembler, production solderer and sewing machine operator, all of which exist in the regional and national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ found Childers not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

III. Analysis

A. RFC analysis

1. ALJ's use of lay knowledge

Childers first argues that the RFC is defective because the ALJ added non-exertional limitations to the RFC - soybean oil allergy and asthma - in the absence of supporting expert medical evidence.[3] It is generally true that an ALJ is "not qualified to interpret raw medical data in functional terms, " Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999). But even assuming the ALJ committed such an error, it is harmless where, as here, "the RFC finding is more favorable to a claimant that the medical record supports." Johnson v. Colvin, No. 1:13-00297, 2014 WL 4181606 *3 (D. Me. Aug. 21, 2014); see also Bubar v. Astrue, 11-107-JL, 2011 WL 6937507, *6 (D.N.H. Dec. 5, 2011) rep. and rec. adopted sub nom. Bubar v. U.S. Soc. Sec. Admin., 2011 WL 6937476 (D.N.H. Dec. 30, 2011) ...

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