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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

October 12, 2017

Jeffrey Johnson
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration


          Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge

         Jeffrey Johnson challenges a decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) to deny his claim for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits. Johnson argues that the administrative law judge (ALJ) made three errors when determining his residual functional capacity (RFC): he failed to properly evaluate evidence of his severe mental impairments, improperly weighed the opinions of various medical providers, and failed to properly consider his pain complaints. Johnson also argues that the ALJ incorrectly relied on the opinion of a vocational rehabilitation expert in determining that he was not disabled because the expert's opinion did not take account of Johnson's severe mental impairments. For the following reasons, I affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Johnson is a 56 year-old male who worked as an ironworker for most of his career. Doc. 12 at 2. He injured his shoulder in 2008, and has not worked since. Doc. 12 at 2, 13. Tr. 71-72. He alleges that he suffers from: “left knee problems, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, depression, broken neck, rotator cuff, right shoulder problems, broken knee/wrist/elbow, and a history of three hernia operations.” Doc. 12 at 1. Several of Johnson's alleged impairments predate his 2008 injury. Doc. 12 at 5.[1]

         Johnson appeals from a June 16, 2016 decision of the Appeals Council denying his request to review an ALJ's determination that he is not disabled.


         The ALJ applied the five-step analysis required by 20 C.F.R. 404.1520 in analyzing Johnson's claim. At step one, the ALJ determined that Johnson was not engaged in substantial gainful activity. Tr. 17.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Johnson had the following physical impairments: “degenerative disc disease s/p cervical fusion; residuals /p left wrist facture with open reduction internal fixation; s/p arthroscopic surgery left knee; s/p arthroscopic surgery right elbow; s/p right sided rotator cuff repair; s/p right quadriceps muscle tear; s/p deep vein thrombosis (right leg). . . .” Tr. 17. He also concluded that Johnson suffered from “affective disorder” and “anxiety-related disorders.” Tr. 17.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Johnson did not have any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R., Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 18. In determining that Johnson's mental impairments did not warrant a finding of disability, the ALJ found that Johnson had “moderate difficulties” with regard to “concentration, persistence, or pace” but that he did not qualify as disabled at step three because his impairments “did not cause at least two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘marked' limitation and ‘repeated' episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration.” Tr. 19- 21.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Johnson,

had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except he was able to lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and up to 10 pounds frequently; to stand and/or walk for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; and to sit for more than 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. He had unlimited use of his hands and feet to push and/or pull. He was able to carry out short and simple instructions without special supervision; to maintain attention, concentration, persistence and pace throughout the normal 8-hour workday and 40 hour workweek; to interact appropriately with peers and supervisors; and to accommodate change.

Tr. 21-22. In making this determination, the ALJ noted that, “the mental residual functional capacity assessment used at steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process requires a more detailed assessment [than the analysis at steps two and three] by itemizing various functions contained in the broad categories found in paragraph B of the adult mental disorders.” Tr. 21. The ALJ noted, “[a]lthough adjudged to be ‘non-severe, ' all of the claimant's above-noted medically determinable impairments were taken into considered [sic] upon assessing his residual functional capacity.” Tr. 18. The ALJ stated, “while the claimant also alleges significant ongoing symptoms and limitations related to anxiety and depression, a review of his records likewise fails to reveal evidence of medically documented findings and/or a treatment history consistent with his allegations.” Tr. 27. After considering “the medical evidence of record as a whole, ” the ALJ found “that, while there is evidence of record to support a finding that the claimant . . . was credibly limited to the performance of simple tasks, there is a lack of evidence to warrant any further reduction of his mental residual functional capacity.” Tr. 27.

         At step five, after considering the opinion of a vocational expert based on a hypothetical question, the ALJ determined that Johnson could work in a “light exertion” job, as a price marker, housekeeper, or small products assembler. Tr. 34. The ALJ then denied Johnson's claim for SSDI. Tr. 34.


         I am authorized under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the pleadings submitted by the parties and the administrative record and enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the “final decision” of the Commissioner. That review is limited, however, “to determining whether the ALJ 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 ALJ's findings of fact, as 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 ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive, even where the record “arguably could support a different conclusion.” Id. at 770. If, however, the ALJ “ignor[ed] evidence, misappl[ied] the law, or judg[ed] matters entrusted to experts, ” her findings are not conclusive. Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam). The ALJ determines issues of credibility and draws inferences ...

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