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Castro v. Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 27, 2018

Jackeline Castro
v.
Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration

          ORDER

          JOSEPH A. DICLERICO, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Jackeline Castro seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying her application for disability benefits under Title II and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Castro moves to reverse on the ground that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (“Grid”), to find that she was not disabled. The Acting Commissioner moves to affirm.

         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 mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). When the record could support differing conclusions, the court must 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) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Background

         Castro applied for both disability benefits under Title II and supplemental security income under Title XVI. She claimed a disability beginning in March of 2014 due to an ankle fracture, left hip pain, and mental health impairments. She has a high school education and previously worked as a group leader and an inspector.

         The joint statement of material facts indicates that Castro had an ankle injury in May of 2014. She was treated for ankle pain and related depression. The joint statement focuses on her mental health issues.

         A state agency psychologist, Jessica A. Stern, examined Castro in November of 2014. Dr. Stern found that Castro had some difficulties in social functioning, concentration, and task completion. She also found that Castro would have trouble adapting to work because of her leg problems and anhedonia (inability to enjoy things that normally would be enjoyable). Dr. Stern diagnosed major depressive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

         Laura Landerman, Ph.D., another state agency psychologist, provided an opinion based on a review of Castro's records in December of 2014. Dr. Landerman found that Castro had depressive syndrome that caused her to be moderately limited in her ability to interact appropriately with the public and would require a socially isolated work setting. On the other hand, however, Dr. Landerman found that Castro was not limited in her ability to ask questions and get assistance, accept instruction and criticism from supervisors, and get along with co-workers and peers. She found that despite some limitations Castro could work within a schedule, maintain concentration for up to two hours, and work at an acceptable pace without excessive interruptions due to her psychological symptoms. The joint statement indicates that Castro continued to receive counseling and medication management through January of 2016.

         A hearing was held before an ALJ on March 17, 2016. The ALJ issued a decision on August 2, 2016, in which he found that Castro was not disabled. The ALJ found that Castro had severe impairments due to reconstructive surgery on her left foot, affective disorder, somatoform disorder, and anxiety disorder. Despite those impairments, the ALJ found that Castro retained the capacity to work at the light exertional level with limitations to occasional postural movement; to doing simple, routine, competitive, repetitive, and non-abstract tasks; to occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors; and to no interaction with the public.

         Based on that residual functional capacity, the ALJ used the Grid to determine that Castro was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Castro's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner.

         Discussion

         Castro contends that the ALJ erred in relying on the Grid when he found that she had non-exertional limitations. In particular, Castro contends that the limitation that she could only interact occasionally with co-workers and supervisors precluded the ALJ's reliance on the Grid. The Acting Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly relied on the Grid.

         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.[1] The claimant bears the burden through the first four steps of proving that her impairments preclude her from working. Freeman v. Barnhart,274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001). At the fifth step, the Acting Commissioner has the ...


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