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Guzman v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

April 1, 2016

Crystal Guzman
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, U.S. Social Security Administration No. 2016 DNH 075

Laurie Smith Young, Esq., T. David Plourde, Esq.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

PAUL BARBADORO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Crystal Guzman challenges the Social Security Administration’s denial of her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming her decision. For the reasons that follow, I grant the Commissioner’s motion to affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

In accordance with Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts (Doc. No. 12). See LR 9.1. Because that joint statement is part of the court’s record, I need not recount it here. I discuss facts relevant to the disposition of this matter as necessary below.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), I have the authority to review the pleadings submitted by the parties and the administrative record, and to enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the “final decision” of the Commissioner. That review is limited, however, “to determining whether the [Administrative Law Judge] 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). I defer to the Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ’s) findings of fact, so long as those findings are supported by substantial evidence. Id. Substantial evidence 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, the ALJ’s factual findings are conclusive, even where the record “arguably could support a different conclusion.” Id. at 770. Findings are not conclusive, however, if the ALJ derived his findings 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.

III. ANALYSIS

Crystal Guzman is a Dover woman who was 48 years old as of December 2013. She has past work experience as a cook, fish market clerk, receptionist, and school custodian. Doc. No. 12 at 1-2. She filed for DIB and SSI benefits in September 2012, claiming disability as of April 3, 2012. Id. at 1. The Social Security Administration denied Guzman’s application, and in November 2013 a hearing was held before ALJ Paul F. Kelly. Id. Following that hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Guzman’s application. Tr. at 22-33 (ALJ’s written decision).

In his decision, the ALJ found at step one that Guzman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 3, 2012, her alleged onset date. Tr. at 24. At step two, the ALJ found that Guzman suffered from the “severe impairments” of fibromyalgia, depression, and panic disorder. Tr. at 24-25. At step three, however, the ALJ determined that Guzman’s impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in the relevant regulations. Tr. At 25-26. The ALJ then decided that Guzman retained the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with certain restrictions, such as only occasionally climbing ramps or stairs, avoiding concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold, and limiting her work to “simple, routine tasks in a low stress job.” Tr. at 26. Based on this RFC, the ALJ then found at step four that Guzman could not perform her past work. Tr. at 31. Lastly, at step five, the ALJ consulted a vocational expert and determined that Guzman could perform work in the national economy. Tr. at 31-32. The ALJ therefore concluded that Guzman was not disabled. Tr. at 32.

Guzman requested review of the ALJ’s decision, but in May 2015, the Appeals Council denied her request. Tr. at 1. As a result, the ALJ’s decision constitutes the Commission’s final decision, and this case is now ripe for review. Guzman filed this appeal in June 2015, asserting two challenges to the ALJ’s decision. First, she claims that the ALJ erred by using his lay knowledge to create Guzman’s RFC, rather than relying on the expert medical opinions. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ considered two divergent medical opinions, and rather than rely on one or the other, impermissibly crafted a “middle path” between the two. Second, Guzman asserts that the ALJ failed to give proper reasons for assigning little weight to the opinion of Dr. Dmitri Dmytruk, her treating physician. For the reasons that follow, these arguments are unpersuasive.

A. Challenges to the ALJ’s RFC Finding

Guzman first argues that the ALJ incorrectly fashioned a “middle path” between two divergent medical opinions when he determined her RFC. In general, the ALJ is a “lay person” and is “simply not qualified to interpret raw medical data in functional terms.” Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35. An ALJ must therefore rely “to some degree on RFC evaluations from a physician or another expert.” Delafontaine v. Astrue, 2011 DNH 005, 25-26. This does not mean, however, “that there must always be some super-evaluator, a single physician who gives the factfinder an overview of the entire case.” Evangelista v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 826 F.2d 136, 144 (1st Cir. 1987). Rather, an ALJ “may piece together the relevant medical facts from the findings and opinions of multiple physicians, ” see id., and render “common-sense judgments about functional capacity based on medical findings.” Gordils v. ...


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