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Dimambro v. US Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

January 5, 2018

Denise Dimambro
v.
US Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PAUL BARBADORO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Denise Dimambro challenges the partial denial of her claim for Social Security disability income benefits (“SSDI”), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in formulating her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by improperly omitting certain limitations from his assessment and improperly weighing the opinion of her treating physician. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. For the reasons that follow, I deny Dimambro's motion and affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Dimambro is a 52 year-old woman, who was 49 years-old on the date of her hearing before the ALJ. Doc. No. 11 at 2. In the past, she has worked as a hostess, receptionist, sales associate, and manager of a hair salon. Id. Most recently, and dating back until 2000, Dimambro worked as a paraprofessional and teacher's aide, which she continued, at least on a part-time basis, until June 2014. See Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”) 19, 29, 220, 263. She alleges that she has been disabled since November 1, 2013, due to a combination of physical and mental impairments, including certain diseases linked to chronic neck and back pain, depression, anxiety-related disorders, ADHD, and a learning disability. See Tr. 19, 23.[1]

         Following the initial denial of her benefits claim in April 2014, Dimambro requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on July 27, 2015. Tr. 16. On November 3, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision, concluding that Dimambro was not disabled prior to July 27, 2015, but became disabled on that date due to a change in her age category under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. Tr. 29-31. On September 30, 2016, the SSA Appeals Council denied her request to review the ALJ's decision, thus making that decision final. Doc. No. 11 at 2. Dimambro now appeals.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ reached his conclusion after applying the five-step, sequential analysis required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 to Dimambro's claim. At step one, the ALJ found that Dimambro had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 1, 2013, her alleged disability onset date, despite some part-time work as a teacher's aide up until June 30, 2014. Tr. 18-19. At step two, the ALJ found that Dimambro had severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease; Graves' hyperthyroidism; fibromyalgia; depression; anxiety-related disorders (variedly diagnosed as a post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorder, nos); an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and [a] learning disability.” Id. He rejected Dimambro's claim that she suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and sleep apnea, finding no acceptable medical evidence of those impairments on record. Id. at 20. He did, however, consider the alleged symptoms of sleep disturbance, insomnia, and fatigue in conjunction with her fibromyalgia and depression. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found that none of Dimambro's impairments, individually nor in combination, qualified for any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526. Specifically, the ALJ considered Dimambro's spinal, affective, and anxiety-related disorders under the pertinent listings, but demonstrate the required severity. See Tr. 21-22. In reaching that conclusion with regards to her mental impairments, the ALJ thoroughly considered the so called “paragraph B” criteria.[2] The ALJ also found that Dimambro's mental impairments resulted in mild restrictions in activities of daily living, mild to moderate difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace. Tr. 21-22. In so concluding, he considered Dimambro's apparent ability to perform various activities notwithstanding her impairments, i.e. laundry, driving, shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, maintaining relationships with her four daughters, running errands, watching television, reading fiction, and organizing her affairs. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Dimambro had the RFC to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), with certain limitations. Tr. 22. Regarding physical limitations, the ALJ found that Dimambro was only able to lift and carry up to ten pounds frequently, and, in an eight-hour workday, to stand and/or walk for up to two hours in total and sit for up to six hours in total. See Tr. 22. He further found that she could perform all postural activities only occasionally, but had unlimited use of her hands and feet to push and/or pull. Id. Regarding mental limitations, the ALJ determined that Dimambro was “able to understand, remember, and carry out simple [one-to-three] step tasks for [two]-hour periods over the course of an [eight]-hour workday and 40-hour work week consistent with the performance of unskilled work activity.” Id. In light of this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Dimambro could not return to her past relevant work as a paraprofessional or teacher's aide. Tr. 28-29.

         Finally, at step five, the ALJ ultimately determined that Dimambro was “not disabled” prior to July 27, 2015, but became disabled on that date due to a change in her age category.[3] The ALJ first found that, in light of her age prior to July 27, 2015 (i.e. under age 50 or “younger person”), along with her education, work experience, and RFC, Dimambro was capable of performing certain sedentary jobs that existed in significant No. in the national economy.[4] See Tr. 30. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Dimambro was “not disabled” during that time. Tr. 30. However, he further found that Dimambro's age category changed to “person closely approaching advanced age” on July 27, 2015, as she was by then nearly 50 years-old, and therefore found that Dimambro was “disabled” as of that date. See Tr. 29-30.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         I am authorized 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. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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, 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 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 derived her findings by “ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts, ” her findings are not conclusive. Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam). The ALJ is responsible for determining issues of credibility, drawing inferences from evidence in the record, and resolving conflicts in the evidence. See Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Dimambro contends that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence based on two grounds. First she argues that the ALJ's RFC assessment was deficient because he failed to account for certain functional limitations identified by two consultative psychologists. See Doc. No. 8-1 at 5-9. Second, she argues that the ALJ erred in his physical RFC assessment by giving less than controlling weight to the opinions of her treating rheumatologist, Dr. Susan Ritter, without providing “good reasons.”[5] See Id. at 9-16.

         In response, the Acting Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. She argues that the limitations identified by Dimambro as being omitted from the ALJ's mental RFC were all either appropriately incorporated, rejected, or irrelevant, and that the ALJ provided “good reasons” for discrediting Dr. Ritter's opinions. Doc. No. 10-1 at 1. I address, and reject each of Dimambro's arguments in turn.

         A. Failure to Include Specific Limitations in RFC

         Dimambro first claims that the ALJ erred in formulating her RFC by failing to account for several functional limitations identified by two consultative experts. She argues that the ALJ, as a layperson, was not qualified to disregard “uncontroverted mental health opinions” that apparently stated she could only work in settings with “additional supervision” and other special workplace conditions. See Doc. No. 8-1 at 5. Therefore, she argues, the ALJ's RFC assessment was not supported by substantial evidence without the limitations that predicated the experts' RFC opinions. She makes this argument by pointing to the opinions of two consultative psychologists, Dr. Benjamin Garber and Dr. William Jamieson. Doc. No. 8-1 at 5-7. Both psychologists essentially opined that Dimambro was able to perform “simple” work despite her mental impairments. See Tr. 79 (Dr. Jamieson); Tr. 707 (Dr. Garber). Dimambro does not now challenge the weight given to these opinions, but rather claims that the ALJ either wrongfully rejected or inadequately accounted for several so-called limiting conditions on which the opinions were purportedly predicated. See Doc. No. 8-1 at 5-8.

         A claimant's RFC is “the most [the claimant] can still do despite [his] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ is responsible for determining a claimant's RFC based on all relevant evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1); see Lord v. Apfel, 114 F.Supp.2d 3, 13 (D.N.H.2000); Stephenson v. Halter, 2001 DNH 154, *4-5. In making that determination, she is dually responsible for resolving any conflicts in the evidence. See Gonzalez-Garcia v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 835 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987). The ALJ is further required to evaluate “every medical opinion” that a claimant submits, “[r]egardless of its source.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). Accordingly, an ALJ must explain in the decision the weight given to any opinions from “treating sources, nontreating sources, and other nonexamining sources.” Sastre v. Astrue, 970 F.Supp.2d 267, 275-276 (D. Mass. 2012); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). Ordinarily, therefore, an ALJ's failure to consider a medical opinion in the record at all is legal error that requires remand. See Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35-36 (1st Cir. 1999). This general rule, however, is not without exception. An ALJ need not address every individual piece of evidence in the record that is either cumulative or unhelpful to the claimant's position. See Lord v. Apfel, 114 F.Supp.2d 3, 13 (D. N.H. 2000). Although an ALJ is not free to simply ignore medical opinions supporting a claimant's position, she remains free to independently evaluate their weight. See Charron v. Astrue, 2013 DNH 156, *5. She can accept each piece of evidence completely, partially, or not at all, provided that she does so on “well-supported grounds.” See Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1121 (9th Cir. 2012).

         1. Dr. Benjamin Garber

         On March 19, 2015, Dr. Garber, a licensed psychologist, examined Dimambro and prepared a mental health evaluation report at the request of the New Hampshire Disability Determination Service (“DDS”). Tr. 703. In his report, he concluded that Dimambro suffered from chronic and moderate major depression, PTSD, ADD, and a learning disability. Tr. 707. He assigned her a “GAF” score of 70. Id. As part of his evaluation, Dr. Garber was required to provide his opinion regarding Dimambro's “ability to function in terms of appropriateness, independence, quality and sustainability of function.” Tr. 706. That process required Dr. Garber to opine as to the extent of any functional limitations resulting from Dimambro's impairments, along with her retained function despite those impairments, in five defined areas. Tr. 706-707. In one of those areas, entitled “understanding and remembering instructions, ” Dr. Garber wrote the following: “[Dimambro] is able to understand and remember simple spoken and written instructions at least in a minimally stimulating, highly structured and closely supervised environment.” Tr. 707 (emphasis added).

         In formulating Dimambro's RFC, the ALJ gave Dr. Garber's opinion substantial weight. Tr. 28. To reiterate, the ALJ's mental RFC provided that “[Dimambro] is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple ([one-to-three] step) tasks for [two]-hour periods over the course of an [eight]-hour workday and 40-hour work week consistent with the performance of unskilled work activity.” Tr. 22. However, the ALJ further found a “lack of evidence to indicate that [Dimambro] would require a minimally stimulating, highly structured and ...


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