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Chambers v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

February 16, 2016

Kathleen Chambers
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2016 DNH 028




Kathleen Chambers appeals the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) denial of her application for disability benefits. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Chambers suffered from diabetes, depression, anxiety, and left shoulder capsulitis. The ALJ nevertheless found that Chambers 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 Chambers’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision, rendering the ALJ’s decision final. Chambers timely appealed to this court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In due course, Chambers moved to reverse the SSA’s decision and the SSA’s Acting Commissioner moved to affirm the denial of benefits.

Chambers asserts several arguments in support of her motion. First, she claims that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to various medical opinions, including that of her long-time treating physician. Next, she argues that the ALJ improperly disregarded a statement submitted by a former employer. Chambers further argues that the ALJ erred in concluding that the severity of her symptoms was not fully substantiated. In addition, Chambers asserts that the ALJ erred in constructing an RFC that was not supported by medical evidence. Finally, Chambers claims that the ALJ improperly relied on an incomplete hypothetical posed to the vocational expert.

After review of the pending motions, the parties’ joint statement of material facts and the administrative record, the court grants Chambers’s motion, denies the Acting Commissioner’s motion and remands the case to the SSA.

I. Standard of Review

The court’s review of the 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).

II. Background[1]

In analyzing Chambers's benefit application, the ALJ invoked the required five-step process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. First, he concluded that Chambers had not engaged in substantial work activity after the alleged onset of her disability on July 18, 2012. Next, the ALJ determined that Chambers suffered from several severe impairments: diabetes, depression, anxiety and adhesive capsulitis of the left shoulder. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1920(c). At the third step, the ALJ concluded that Chambers’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 Chambers had the RFC to perform light, unskilled work, with the modification that she must avoid climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; that she can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, bend, stoop, balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl; that she can occasionally reach overhead with her upper left arm; that she should avoid exposure to vibrations; that she is limited to simple work and that she is able to maintain attention and concentration for two hour increments during an eight hour day. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).

After finding at step four that Chambers 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 Chambers’s testimony and medical records, and the testimony of a vocational expert, concluded that Chambers could perform jobs which exist in the regional and national economy, such as cashier, fast food worker, and price marker. As significant here, however, the vocational expert testified, in response to a hypothetical posed by the ALJ, that absence from work three or more times per month and a requirement of multiple 10-15 minute breaks would be limitations that would prohibit all work. Ultimately, the ALJ found Chambers not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

III. Analysis

A. Weight given to treating physician's opinion Chambers’s treating endocrinologist, Dr. Beisswenger, [2]completed an RFC questionnaire. He noted Chambers’s diabetes diagnosis, as well as fatigue and hyper/hypoglycemic attacks. He also observed that Chambers suffered from depression and anxiety, and that her symptoms would interfere with the attention and concentration necessary to perform simple work tasks “frequently, ” that is, roughly one-third to two-thirds of an eight-hour day. Ultimately, Dr. Beisswenger concluded that Chambers should avoid concentrated exposures to environmental hazards, that her symptoms would produce “good days” and “bad days, ” and that she would likely to be absent from work more than four days per month as a result of her impairments and treatment. Chambers argues that the ALJ should have given Dr. Beisswenger’s opinion more weight. The court agrees.

A treatment provider’s opinions must be given controlling weight if the “treating source’s opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of [the applicant’s] impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record. . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). In a similar vein, the longer a treating source has treated a claimant and the more times the claimant has been seen by a treating source, the more weight we will be given to the source's medical opinion. Id. at § 404.1527(c)(2)(I). Where a long-time treating physician has enough information to have obtained a longitudinal picture of the claimant’s impairment, the source’s opinion will be given more weight than if it were from a non-treating source. Id. Finally, “[w]hen a treating physician’s opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, the ALJ determines the amount of weight based on factors that include the nature and extent of the physician’s relationship with the applicant, whether the physician provided evidence in support of the opinion, whether the opinion is consistent with the record as a whole, and whether the physician is a specialist in the field.” Remick v. Astrue, 2011 DNH 176, 25 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1-6)). The ALJ must give reasons for the weight given to treating physician's opinions. Id. (citing Soto-Cedeño v. Astrue, 380 Fed.App'x. 1, 4 (1st Cir. 2010)).

Here, the ALJ gave Dr. Beisswenger’s opinion only “little weight” because, according to the ALJ, his conclusion regarding how much time Chambers would miss from work lacked support and was contradicted by the remainder of the evidence of record. After reviewing the record, the court finds ...

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