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LaCourse v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

August 17, 2016

Cherie Ann Lacourse,
v.
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2016 DNH 140

          ORDER ON APPEAL

          JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Cherie Ann Lacourse has appealed the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge at the SSA (“ALJ”) ruled that, despite several severe impairments, including fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cognitive disorder, Lacourse retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and thus is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council granted Lacourse’s request for review of the ALJ’s initial decisions, see Id. § 404.967, vacating the ALJ’s decision and remanding for further proceedings. The ALJ issued a new decision on remand, and the Appeals Council denied Lacourse’s request for review thereof, with the result that the ALJ’s second decision became the final decision on Lacourse’s application, see Id. § 404.981. Lacourse then appealed that decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Lacourse has moved to reverse the decision, see L.R. 9.1(b), contending that the ALJ erred (1) by incorrectly weighing the opinion of one medical source when determining Lacourse’s RFC, and (2) in his assessment of the credibility of Lacourse’s subjective complaints. The Acting Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the ALJ’s decision. See L.R. 9.1(e). After careful consideration, the court grants the Acting Commissioner’s motion to affirm (and denies Lacourse’s motion to reverse) the ALJ’s decision.

         I. Applicable legal standard

The court limits its review of a final decision of the SSA “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 court will uphold the ALJ’s decision if it is supported by “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). Though the evidence in the record may support multiple conclusions, the court will still uphold the ALJ’s findings “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).

         II. Background[1]

         The ALJ invoked the requisite five-step process in assessing Lacourse’s request for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. First, he concluded that Lacourse had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period between the alleged onset of her disability on May 20, 2011, and the date she will no longer be insured, December 31, 2016. He then analyzed the severity of Lacourse’s impairments, concluding that Lacourse suffered from three severe impairments: fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cognitive disorder. Admin. R. at 27.

         At the third step, the ALJ found that Lacourse’s severe impairments did not meet or “medically equal” the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. After reviewing the medical evidence of record, Lacourse’s own statements, and opinions from no fewer than 11 consultants and treating providers, the ALJ concluded that Lacourse retained the RFC to perform simple, unskilled, light work, albeit with several physical limitations, in a low stress environment (“defined as requiring little to no change in the work setting and little to no need for the use of judgment”), and was able to “maintain attention and concentration for two-hour increments throughout an eight-hour workday.” Admin. R. at 29. Finding that, limited in this manner, Lacourse was unable to perform her past, relevant work as a cosmetologist or special education teacher, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565, the ALJ continued to step five, where he concluded that Lacourse could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the economy. Therefore, the ALJ found, Lacourse was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         III. Analysis

         Lacourse challenges two aspects of the ALJ’s analysis. First, she contends that the ALJ erred in crafting Lacourse’s RFC by incorrectly weighing the opinion of Dr. Bennett Slotnick, a neuropsychologist who evaluated Lacourse and opined that Lacourse may be limited to part-time work. Second, Lacourse argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s determination that Lacourse’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely credible.” Admin. R. at 13. The court addresses each of these arguments in turn and concludes that the ALJ did not err on either front.

         A. Residual functional capacity

         In crafting Lacourse’s RFC, the ALJ weighed and considered the medical opinions of some 11 sources. Lacourse challenges the weight given to one portion of one of these opinions -- that of Dr. Slotnick, who performed a neuropsychological examination on Lacourse at the request of her vocational rehabilitation counselor. The ALJ afforded weight to the majority of Dr. Slotnick’s opinion, but gave “less than great weight” to that opinion only “to the extent that [Dr. Slotnick] appears to limit [Lacourse] to part-time work.” Admin. R. at 34-35. The ALJ discounted that portion of Dr. Slotnick’s opinion because “[t]he evidence of record does not reflect cognitive impairment that would prevent [Lacourse] from working at least simple, unskilled work on a full-time basis.” Id. at 35. Lacourse argues that the ALJ erred by giving less than great weight to Dr. Slotnick’s conclusion that Lacourse could work only part time.

         The ALJ weighs the medical opinions “based on the nature of the medical source's relationship with the claimant, the consistency of the opinion with the other record evidence, the medical source's specialty, and other factors that may be brought to the ALJ's attention.” Grant v. Colvin, 2015 DNH 59, 7 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)). It is for the ALJ to resolve conflicts between medical opinions, and the ALJ’s decision to resolve those conflicts against the claimant must be upheld if “that conclusion has substantial support in the record.” Tremblay v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 676 F.2d 11, 12 (1st Cir. 1982). Substantial evidence is that which a “reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept . . . as adequate to support [the] conclusion.” Ortiz v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)). The ALJ’s decision is so supported here.

         The record contains three other opinions that address the effects of Lacourse’s mental impairments on her ability to work. As the ALJ points out, Dr. Darlene Gustavson, who also examined the plaintiff, noted that she was “able to sustain attention and concentration, persistence and pace, . . . complete tasks, . . . [and] tolerate stresses common to a work environment, which includes the ability to . . . consistently maintain attendance and schedule.” Admin. R. 32. The ALJ also relied, to a degree appropriate for a source that is not considered an “acceptable medical source, ” on the opinion of Lacourse’s treating counselor that her “level of functioning and overall ability with regards to her mental health was within normal limits, ” and that she observed no “significant symptoms that are causing [Lacourse] impairment in her daily life.” Id. at 33. The ALJ also afforded “some weight” to the opinion of a state agency ...


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