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Piper v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 20, 2018

Marcia Gay Piper
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner, U.S. Social Security Administration,


          Joseph N. Laplante United States District Judge

         Marcia Gay Piper has appealed the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) at the SSA ruled that, despite severe impairments, Piper retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and thus is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council later denied Piper's request for review, see Id. § 404.967, with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on her application, see Id. § 404.981. Piper then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Piper has moved to reverse the decision. See LR 9.1(b). The Acting Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. See LR 9.1(e). After careful consideration, the court denies Piper's motion and grants the Acting Commissioner's motion.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         The court limits its review of a final decision of the SSA “to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). It “review[s] questions of law de novo, but defer[s] to the Commissioner's findings of fact, so long as they are supported by substantial evidence, ” id., that is, “such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). Though the evidence in the record may support multiple conclusions, the court will still uphold the ALJ's findings “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).

         II. Background[1]

         The ALJ invoked the requisite five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing Piper's request for disability and disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. After determining that Piper had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset of her disability on July 22, 2013, the ALJ analyzed the severity of her impairments. At this second step, the ALJ concluded that Piper had several severe impairments: depression, anxiety, a personality disorder, polysubstance abuse, and degenerative disc disease (cervical and lumbar spine).[2]

         At the third step, the ALJ found that Piper's severe impairments did not meet or “medically equal” the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations.[3] See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. After reviewing the medical evidence of record, Piper's own statements, and the opinions of a medical consultative examiner, Dr. Matthew J. Masewic, M.D., a State agency medical consultant, Dr. Natacha Sochat, M.D., a State agency psychological consultant, Dr. Edward Martin, Ph.D., [4] and Piper's treating physicians, Dr. Eric Lewis, M.D., and Dr. Lester Nicholson, M.D., the ALJ concluded that Piper retained the RFC to perform light work with a variety of limitations.[5] Finding that, even limited in this manner, Piper was able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566 and 416.966, the ALJ concluded his analysis and found that Piper was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         III. Analysis

         Piper challenges the ALJ's treatment of the opinion evidence concerning both her physical and mental impairments. With respect to her physical impairments, she contends that the ALJ relied on his own lay knowledge in forming her RFC. As to her mental impairments, she contends that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion evidence of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Nicholson, and an agency consultant, Dr. Martin. As discussed below, the court finds no error on either front.

         A. Physical impairments

         The ALJ found that Piper suffered one severe physical impairment -- degenerative disc disease.[6] The ALJ concluded that Piper has the RFC to perform light work, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the physical limitations that “[s]he is able to occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds.”[7] In crafting this RFC, the ALJ relied on two medical opinions concerning Piper's physical impairments.[8] He afforded “great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Masewic, the medical consultative examiner, and “less than great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Sochat, the state agency medical consultant.[9]

         Piper challenges the ALJ's physical RFC determination on two fronts. First, she argues that the ALJ based that RFC on his own, lay interpretation of raw medical data, because no medical opinion addressed Piper's back troubles on a function-by-function basis.[10] She also argues that the ALJ erred in relying on Dr. Masewic's opinion, which was rendered without the benefit of all of her medical records.[11] The court finds no error here.

         Lay interpretation.

          “Although determination of a claimant's RFC is an administrative decision that is the responsibility of the Commissioner, an ALJ, as a lay person, cannot interpret a claimant's medical records to determine his RFC. An ALJ must rely to some degree on RFC evaluations from a physician or another expert.” Delafontaine v. Astrue, 2011 DNH 005, 25-26. “[A]lthough an ALJ cannot ab initio interpret medical records to determine a claimant's RFC, he can ‘render[ ] common-sense judgments about functional capacity based on medical findings.'” Id. at 26 (quoting Gordils v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 921 F.2d 327, 329 (1st Cir. 1990)); see also Graham v. Barnhart, No. 02-243, 2006 WL 1236837, at *7 (D.N.H. May 9, 2006) (Barbadoro, J.). “Thus, observations from medical sources can still inform the ALJ's RFC determination even where the medical source does not explicitly address the claimant's functional limitation ‘as long as the [ALJ] does not overstep the bounds of a lay person's competence and render a medical judgment.'” Couture v. Colvin, 2015 DNH 128, 14 (quoting Gordils, 921 F.2d at 329).

         Here, as in Couture, the ALJ did not interpret the raw medical data, but “properly grounded his RFC assessment not in raw medical data, but in Dr. Masewic's medical findings.” 2015 DNH 128, 14. Dr. Masewic based those findings on his examination of Piper's medical records and, importantly, Piper herself.[12] The ALJ did not err when he crafted an RFC taking into account those findings, as well as those of Dr. Sochat and other record evidence.[13]

         Post-dating evidence.

         Dr. Masewic issued his opinion on October 19, 2013. Piper submitted medical evidence for the ALJ's review post-dating that opinion. Piper also argues that the ALJ erred by giving great weight to Dr. Masewic's opinion when Dr. Masewic did not review all relevant evidence concerning her back condition.[14]

         “It can indeed be reversible error for an administrative law judge to rely on an RFC opinion of a non-examining consultant when the consultant has not examined the full medical record.” Strout v. Astrue, Civil No. 08-181-B-W, 2009 WL 214576, at *8 (D. Me. Jan. 28, 2009) (citing Rose v. Shalala, 34 F.3d 13, 18 (1st Cir. 1994)). “However, an ALJ may rely on such an opinion where the medical evidence postdating the reviewer's assessment does not establish any greater limitations, or where the medical reports of claimant's treating providers are arguably consistent with, or at least not ‘clearly inconsistent' with, the reviewer's assessment.” Ferland v. Astrue, 2011 DNH 169, 11 (internal citations omitted). Here, the ALJ reviewed the subsequent evidence and did not conclude that it supported greater limitations.[15] The court, accordingly, finds no error.

         B. Mental impairments

         The ALJ also concluded that Piper suffered from several severe mental impairments, including depression, anxiety, a personality disorder, and polysubstance abuse.[16] In crafting her RFC, he determined that she could perform light work, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), but limited her to “simple and unskilled work” with a variety of additional limitations, such as that she “avoid social interaction with the general public, ” but could “sustain brief and superficial social interaction with coworkers and supervisors, ” and would be “able to maintain attention and concentration[ ] for two hour increments throughout an eight- hour workday in a low stress environment . . . .”[17] In doing so, the ALJ relied on the opinions of the state agency psychological consultant, Dr. Martin, and Piper's treating psychologist, Dr. Nicholson.[18] Piper contends that the ALJ erred in his reliance, or lack thereof, on these opinions.

         Dr. ...

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