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Floyd v. US Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 21, 2017

Christine Floyd
US Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner, Nancy A. Berryhill Opinion No. 2017 DNH 114


          Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge.

         Christine Floyd is a forty-three-year-old woman who has previously worked at a restaurant and a warehouse. Floyd challenges the Social Security Administration's denial of her claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”).

         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 do not recount it here. Instead, 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 (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

         Floyd submitted an application for SSI in April 2012, alleging an onset date of July 2008. The ALJ subsequently held three hearings. At the first hearing, in October 2013, Floyd appeared alone, and the ALJ postponed the hearing to give Floyd an opportunity to obtain counsel. In March 2014, Floyd failed to appear at the second hearing, though Floyd's counsel and a vocational expert did attend. The expert testified at the hearing, answering questions from both the ALJ and Floyd's counsel. Floyd and her roommate Yuwana Mitchell eventually testified at a hearing held in July 2014. In a decision dated August 12, 2014, the ALJ determined that Floyd was not disabled.

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ employed the five-step sequential analysis outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). At step one, the ALJ concluded that Floyd had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since applying for SSI in April 2012. In his step two analysis, the ALJ considered Floyd's impairments and found that several were severe: left foot osteoarthritis, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder. The ALJ next decided at step three that Floyd's impairments, whether considered individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any listed impairment. After formulating Floyd's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and recognizing at step four that Floyd had no past relevant work, the ALJ advanced to step five. There, the ALJ found that Floyd could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. This finding yielded the conclusion that Floyd was not disabled.

         In August 2015, the Appeals Council denied Floyd's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision now constitutes the final decision of the Acting Commissioner and is ripe for review.

         Floyd develops two principal arguments for reversing the ALJ's decision: (1) the ALJ erred in calculating her RFC; and (2) the ALJ erred in finding that her spinal condition did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.

         A. RFC Arguments

         A claimant's RFC is “the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ found that Floyd could perform light work, [1] “except that she is limited to simple, repetitive unskilled tasks.” Tr. at 34. On appeal, I determine whether the assigned RFC is free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. See Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35.

         1. Evaluation of Opinion Evidence

         Floyd challenges the weight assigned to the opinion of state agency reviewing psychologist Laura Landerman, Ph.D. See Doc. No. 12-1 at 9. Dr. Landerman prepared an assessment of Floyd's mental RFC in August 2012. Tr. at 88-89. She opined that Floyd had a moderate limitation on her “ability to perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances.” Tr. at 89. Despite the moderate limitation, Dr. Landerman ultimately concluded that Floyd was still “able to maintain a schedule and attendance with[in] customary tolerances.” Tr. at 89. In all other functional areas Floyd either had no limitation or insignificant limitation. See Tr. at 88-89.

         In preparing her assessment, Dr. Landerman relied on the August 2012 opinion of examining psychologist Juliana Read, Ph.D. See Tr. at 89. Dr. Read reviewed Floyd's medical records and met with Floyd for fifty-five minutes, discussing the history of Floyd's mental illness and Floyd's daily activities. See Tr. at 402-05. Dr. Read also performed a mental status examination, which yielded largely unremarkable results: Floyd's behavior and content of thought were within normal limits, her speech was regular, her affect was congruent with her stable mood, and her sensory functions were intact. See Tr. at 403. Although Dr. Read diagnosed Floyd, in pertinent part, with obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder, she noted only one area of ...

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