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Lavoie v. U.S. Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 24, 2016

Tracy Lavoie
US Social Security Administration Acting Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin Opinion No. 2016 DNH 107


          Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge.

         Tracy Lavoie is a forty-four year old woman with a history of numerous impairments, including fibromyalgia, major depressive disorder, anxiety, carpal tunnel syndrome, breathing-related disorders, and headaches. Lavoie previously worked as a bus driver, bus monitor, cashier, crossing guard, and babysitter. Here, Lavoie challenges the Social Security Administration's denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits. The Social Security Commissioner, in turn, seeks to have the ruling affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In accordance with Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts (Doc. No. 17). 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.


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), I have the authority to review the administrative record and the pleadings submitted by the parties, and to enter 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 (1stCir. 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

         Lavoie filed for disability insurance benefits in June 2011, alleging disability as of June 10, 2011. Doc. No. 17 at 1. After her application was initially denied, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") in April 2013. Id. The ALJ denied Lavoie's application in July 2013. Id. After an appeal, however, the Appeals Council remanded Lavoie's case in November 2013. Id. The ALJ held a second hearing in May 2014, but again denied Lavoie's application. Id. In July 2014, after another appeal, the Appeals Council remanded the matter a second time. Id. A different ALJ held another hearing in December 2014, at which Lavoie, Lavoie's husband, a medical expert, and a vocational expert testified. The ALJ then issued a written decision, concluding that Lavoie was not disabled. Tr. at 60-77 (the ALJ's decision).

         In her written decision, the ALJ evaluated Lavoie's claims under the five step process outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found that Lavoie had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 10, 2011, her alleged onset date. Tr. at 62. The ALJ determined at step two that Lavoie had severe impairments of fibromyalgia, diabetes mellitus, left carpal tunnel syndrome, breathing-related disorder, and headaches, but also concluded that Lavoie's major depressive disorder was not a severe impairment. Tr. at 62-63. At step three, the ALJ found that Lavoie's impairments did not meet or equal any of the listed impairments. Tr. at 65-66. Then, after calculating Lavoie's residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined at step five that Lavoie was able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. at 66-67, 76-77. The ALJ therefore concluded that Lavoie was not disabled. Tr. at 77.

         In May 2015, the Appeals Council denied Lavoie's request to review the ALJ's decision. Tr. at 1. As such, the ALJ's decision constitutes the Commissioner's final decision, and this matter is now ripe for judicial review.

         Here, Lavoie argues that a remand is required for four principal reasons: (1) the ALJ did not properly analyze her depression, (2) the ALJ did not evaluate her fibromyalgia appropriately, (3) the ALJ improperly weighed opinion evidence, and (4) the ALJ's step-five determination was not supported by substantial evidence. Lavoie's first argument is persuasive, and warrants a remand.

         Lavoie claims that the ALJ made two errors in analyzing her depression. Lavoie argues that the ALJ erred in concluding, at step two, that her depression was a non-severe impairment. She further contends that the ALJ erred by failing to consider her depression throughout the remainder of the sequential analytic process. I take up each issue in turn.

         A. Step Two Analysis ...

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