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Muniz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 15, 2017

Lisandro Muniz
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security [1] Opinion No. 2017 DNH 195

          Daniel W. McKenna, Esq.

          T. David Plourde, Esq.

          ORDER

          Landya McCafferty United States District Judge.

         Lisandro Muniz seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Because the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to properly consider opinion evidence and improperly relied on his own interpretation of the medical record, the court remands the case to the Social Security Administration.

         Standard of Review

         In reviewing the final decision of the Acting Commissioner in a social security case, the court “is limited to determining whether the ALJ deployed the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999); accord Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001). The court defers to the ALJ's factual findings as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. § 405(g); see also Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 34 (1st Cir. 2016).

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the burden through the first four steps of proving that her impairments preclude her from working.[2] Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001). At the fifth step, the Acting Commissioner has the burden of showing that jobs exist which the claimant can do. Heggarty v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 990, 995 (1st Cir. 1991).

         Background

         Muniz filed an application for social security benefits, alleging disability beginning in July 2010 because of back pain, hepatitis C, depression, anxiety, insomnia, acid reflux, GERD, sciatica, and thyroid problems. A hearing was held before ALJ Thomas Merrill in September 2012. In a decision issued later that month, the ALJ found at Step Two of the sequential analysis that Muniz did not have a severe impairment and, therefore, was not disabled.

         The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to reconsider evidence of whether Muniz had a severe impairment at Step Two. In response, a second hearing was held before ALJ Merrill. The ALJ again found at Step Two that Muniz did not have a severe impairment and was not disabled. This time, the Appeals Council denied review.

         The medical records begin in February 2010 when Muniz was diagnosed with hepatitis, and was also examined and treated for back pain. In July 2010, Muniz was also treated for depression, and medical records show that he was taking Methadone at the time, but taking more than he was prescribed. Muniz continued to seek treatment for depression throughout 2010.

         An MRI done in July 2010 showed disc bulge that was greatest at ¶ 5-S1 with mild to moderate narrowing of the left neural foramen but without compression of the nerve root. After the MRI, Muniz began treatment with the Orthopedic Professional Association clinic, and Dr. Anthony Salerni recommended epidural steroid injections and physical therapy. In August, Muniz began treatment at the Interventional Spine Medicine clinic with Dr. Slezak for low back pain. Dr. Slezak administered steroid injections, but the clinic discontinued Muniz's treatment in early 2011.

         In March 2011, Muniz sought care for back pain at the PainCare clinic. Nurse Greg Aprilliano at the PainCare clinic noted that Muniz reported taking 10 100 milligram tablets of Methadone each day and also noted that Muniz's complaints of pain exceeded the reported pathology in his back. Muniz's doctors recommended that he wean from Methadone. The PainCare clinic stopped prescribing pain medications and subsequently cancelled Muniz's treatment because he tried to “double dip” on his prescription.

         In June 2011, a state medical consultant, Dr. MacEachran, completed a physical residual functional capacity assessment of Muniz. He found that Muniz was limited to lifting no more than 10 pounds occasionally, standing and walking for no more than two to three hours in a day, sitting for no more than six hours, and only occasional postural ...


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