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Alonso v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 3, 2015

Maggie DeLeon Alonso
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration No. 2015 DNH 170


JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE, District Judge.

Maggie DeLeon Alonso appeals the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") denial of her application for disability benefits. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that Alonso suffered from a back disorder, arthritis, depression, and anxiety. The ALJ nevertheless found that Alonso 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 Alonso's request for review of the ALJ's decision, rendering the ALJ's decision final. Alonso timely appealed to this court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In due course, Alonso moved to reverse the SSA's decision and the SSA's Acting Commissioner moved to affirm the denial of benefits.

Alonso asserts four arguments. First, she claims that the ALJ erroneously assessed her credibility. Next, Alonso argues that the ALJ erred in determining her RFC. Alonso also asserts that the ALJ impermissibly used the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("Grids") in assessing her disability and ability to work. Finally, Alonso argues that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the administrative record.

After consideration of the parties' arguments and the administrative record, the court finds the record evidence sufficient to support the ALJ's decision. Therefore, Alonso'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 is 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 Alonso's benefit application, the ALJ invoked the required five-step process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. First, she concluded that Alonso had not engaged in substantial work activity after the alleged onset of her disability on March 16, 2010. Next, the ALJ determined that Alonso suffered from several severe impairments: a back disorder, arthritis, and depression and anxiety. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1920(c). At the third step, the ALJ concluded that Alonso'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 Alonso had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with the modification that such work was unskilled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a).

After finding at step four that Alonso 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 Alonso's testimony, medical records, and an impartial psychiatrist's testimony, applied the Grids and concluded Alonso could perform jobs which exist in the regional and national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ found Alonso not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

III. Analysis

A. Credibility

In considering Alonso's claim, the ALJ stated that "the credibility of [her] allegations is weakened by inconsistencies between her allegations and the medical evidence.... The claimant does experience some levels of pain and limitations, but only to the extent described in the RFC above." See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). Alonso argues that the ALJ improperly weighted her ability to engage in activities of daily living, and failed to fully inquire into the nature and severity of her impairments insofar as they affected those activities. The court finds the record sufficient to support the ALJ's credibility finding.

In analyzing Alonso's credibility, the ALJ was required to employ a two-step process, first determining if a medically determinable impairment is present, and if so, then evaluating the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the alleged symptoms associated with such impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. The second step of the analysis requires the ALJ to consider several factors: 1) claimant's daily activities; 2) the location, duration, frequency and intensity of pain or other symptoms; 3) precipitating and aggravating factors; 4) effectiveness and side effects of medication; 5) effectiveness of treatment; 6) measures taken by the claimant to relieve symptoms; and 7) any other factors concerning claimant's limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c); Avery v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 797 F.2d 19, 29 (1st Cir. 1986). Ultimately, however, an ALJ's credibility determination is entitled to deference, especially when supported by specific evidence. Simmons v. Astrue, 736 F.Supp.2d 391, 401 (D.N.H. 2010) (citing Frustaglia v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 829 F.2d 192, 195 (1st Cir. 1987) ("[t]he credibility determination by the ALJ, who observed the claimant, evaluated [her] demeanor, and considered how that testimony fit in with the rest of the evidence, is entitled to deference, especially when supported by specific findings")).

With respect to activities of daily living, the ALJ noted record evidence that Alonso prepares meals, uses public transportation alone, shops, reads, watches television, goes to church, takes care of her children, and attends to her personal care needs. These daily activities, the ALJ concluded, at least partially undermined her claims of disabling symptoms. See Young v. Astrue, 2011 NH 140, 23 (observing that a claimant's performance of activities of daily living should not be equated to an ability to work, but can support a negative credibility finding). To the extent Alonso cites record evidence that casts doubt on her ability to perform daily activities, such conflicting evidence is for the ALJ to resolve. Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 10 (1st Cir. 2001). The court also rejects Alonso's argument that the ALJ failed to mention that she needed help with some tasks and could not perform others. See Teixeira v. Astrue, 755 F.Supp.2d 340, 347 (D. Mass. 2010) ("That Teixeira ...

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