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Martin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

February 9, 2018

Richard Martin
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1]

          ORDER

          LANDYA MCCAFFERTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Richard Martin seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 1383(c)(3), of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Martin moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision, contending that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in improperly evaluating and weighing the testimony of the state agency physician, by interpreting raw medical data, and by ignoring medical evidence in the record relating to manipulative limitations. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Acting Commissioner is affirmed.

         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). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Astralis Condo. Ass'n v. Sec'y Dep't of Housing & Urban Dev., 620 F.3d 62, 66 (1st Cir. 2010).

         BACKGROUND[2]

         On June 13, 2013, Richard Martin applied for disability benefits and supplemental security income, claiming a disability that began on March 15, 2013, when he was in a car accident. Martin was 53 years old at the time of his application. He had previously worked in landscape construction, cooking and running a kitchen, working for a moving company, and working as a cashier and stocker.

         On the date of Martin's car accident, he was taken to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (“DHMC”) for special care by the trauma service for spinal fractures and upper extremity weakness. While at DHMC, it was determined that Martin had suffered a facial fracture and a displaced fracture through his fibula. He was also diagnosed with central disc protrusions, degenerative disc disease, and soft tissue swelling. Martin was discharged from DHMC on March 18, 2013, and, on March 26, 2013, he underwent an outpatient surgical procedure to repair his facial injury.

         In the months following the accident, Martin sought treatment for his spinal cord injury and upper extremity weakness. Treatment notes and physical therapy evaluations throughout 2013, 2014, and into early 2015 showed that Martin consistently made progress in his recovery from his injuries, although he continued to complain of pain, primarily in his neck.

         In April 2014, Martin also developed a left knee ailment, which was eventually diagnosed as a torn meniscus.[3] On July 17, 2014, he underwent a left knee arthroscopy. By October 2014, Martin reported significant improvement in his knee, and did not seek further treatment for the injury.

         On April 6, 2015, a hearing before an ALJ was held on Martin's application for benefits. Martin was represented by an attorney and testified at the hearing.

         On June 26, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The ALJ found that Martin had severe impairments due to central cord syndrome, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. The ALJ also discussed numerous impairments that were medically determinable, but not severe within the meaning of the Social Security Act. He found that Martin's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ concluded that Martin had the residual functional capacity to do light work under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) & 416.967(b), [4] except that he was limited to occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, kneeling, crouching and crawling. The ALJ also concluded that Martin could frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, and stoop, and that he should avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards.

         With that evaluation, the ALJ found that Martin could do his past relevant work as a cashier/checker and stocker. Therefore, the ALJ found that Martin was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council denied Martin's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Acting Commissioner's final decision.

         DISCUSSION

         In support of his motion to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision, Martin contends that the ALJ erred by 1) improperly evaluating and weighing the testimony of the state agency physician, 2) interpreting raw medical data, and 3) ignoring medical evidence in the record relating to manipulative limitations. The Acting Commissioner moves to affirm.

         An individual seeking social security income and/or disability insurance benefits is disabled under the Social Security Act if he or she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) & 1382c(a)(3)(A). In determining whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of social security benefits, 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 him from working. Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001).

         At the fourth step of the sequential analysis, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is a determination of the most a person can do in a work setting despite her limitations caused by impairments, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1), and his past relevant work, see Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv)). If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled. See Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment is reviewed to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991).

         I. Weight Given to State Agency Physician's Opinion

         Martin contends that the ALJ erred in giving great weight to the opinion of the state agency physician, Dr. Hugh Fairley, that Martin would be capable of performing light work with certain limitations as of March 14, 2014. Specifically, Dr. Fairley, who issued his opinion on January 24, 2014, stated that Martin was “considered presently disabled” as of the date of his opinion. Admin. Rec. at 67. Dr. Fairley opined, however, that based on Martin's medical records, which showed consistent improvement in functionality since his accident, Martin would be able to perform light work with certain limitations as of March 14, 2014.

         Martin criticizes the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Fairley's opinion for several reasons. He argues that 1) the ALJ failed to adequately explain Dr. Fairley's opinion that Martin should be considered disabled as of January 24, 2014, but yet was still capable of performing light work; 2) the ALJ failed to consider medical records post-dating Dr. Fairley's opinion showing that Martin's condition had not improved as Dr. Fairley expected; and 3) Martin developed new conditions after Dr. Fairley's opinion that supported a finding of disability.[5]

         An ALJ is required to consider the medical opinions along with all other relevant evidence in a claimant's record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b). “Medical opinions are statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s), including [the claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite impairment(s), and [the claimant's] physical or mental restrictions.” § 404.1527(a)(1). Medical opinions are evaluated based on the nature of the medical source's relationship with the claimant, the ...


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