United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
ORDER ON APPEAL
N. LAPLANTE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Residual functional capacity
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
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.
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