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Laurent v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 28, 2018

Theresa St. Laurent
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

          ORDER

          Landya McCafferty, United States District Judge.

         Theresa St. Laurent 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 her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. St. Laurent moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision, contending that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in his residual functional capacity assessment and in his Step Five determination. 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[1]

         On April 30, 2013, Theresa St. Laurent applied for disability benefits and supplemental security income, claiming a disability that began on January 2, 2012. St. Laurent alleged that she was disabled because of fibromyalgia and heart problems. She was 46 years old at the time of her application, and had previously worked as a newspaper packager and cleaner, as well as in positions in a greenhouse and in a retail provider selling specialty foods.

         I. Medical Records

         St. Laurent was admitted to Portsmouth Regional Hospital in April 2011 for chest pain due to a myocardial infarction, which required a stent placement and follow-up cardiac rehabilitation. Over the next four-plus years, St. Laurent consulted at various times with her physicians at Barrington Family Practice and Walk In Care Center and at the York Family Practice regarding her cardiac condition and chest pains, which she suffered from routinely.

         In 2011, she also developed lower back pain that radiated down her right leg, which was related to fibromyalgia. St. Laurent's back pain was exacerbated by a fall in October 2014, and she was continually treated conservatively for the pain, such as with oral medications.

         II. Functional Assessments

         On December 15, 2014, physical therapist Danielle Amero completed a functional assessment for St. Laurent. Amero opined that St. Laurent had significant limitations in her ability to do any prolonged lifting, sitting, or standing, and that she was incapable of performing full-time sedentary work.

         On January 21, 2015, Holly Brunner James, FNP, completed a “Medical Source Statement (Physical).” In that assessment, James, like Amero, opined that St. Laurent was significantly limited in her ability to do any prolonged lifting, sitting, or standing. James also found that St. Laurent's ability to maintain attention and concentration was significantly compromised by pain and/or prescribed medication, and that she “could reach less than two-and-a-half hours a day.” Doc. no. 10 at 8.[2]

         III. Hearing and Decision

         On September 15, 2015, a hearing before an ALJ was held on St. Laurent's application for benefits. St. Laurent was represented by an attorney and testified at the hearing. Also appearing and testifying were Dr. John Pella, an independent medical expert, and Albert Sabella, a vocational expert.

         Dr. Pella discussed St. Laurent's medical records and opined that prior to October 1, 2014, St. Laurent was capable of performing “overall light” work. As of October 1, 2014, Dr. Pella opined that St. Laurent was limited to sedentary work.

         On June 26, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The ALJ found that St. Laurent had severe impairments due to heart disease/non-obstructive coronary artery disease and lumbar degenerative disease.[3] The ALJ also found that St. Laurent's fibromyalgia was not a severe impairment and that her impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         Relying primarily on Dr. Pella's testimony and St. Laurent's testimony concerning her daily activities and attempts to return to work, the ALJ concluded that prior to October 1, 2014, St. Laurent had the residual functional capacity to do light work under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) & 416.967(b), [4] except that she could not work at unprotected heights or operate dangerous moving machinery, and she was limited to uncomplicated tasks and required regular work breaks, on average of every two hours during an eight-hour work day due to pain/medication side effects. The ALJ also determined that as of October 1, 2014, St. Laurent was limited to sedentary work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except that she could not work at unprotected heights or operate dangerous moving machinery, and she was limited to uncomplicated tasks and required regular work breaks, on average of every two hours during an eight-hour work day due to pain/medication side effects.

         Based on that functional assessment, the ALJ found that prior to October 1, 2014, St. Laurent could perform her past relevant work as an apartment housekeeper. The ALJ also found that as of October 1, 2014, St. Laurent could perform other jobs existing in the national economy, including the representative occupations of assembler and inspector. Therefore, the ALJ found that St. Laurent was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied St. Laurent's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Acting Commissioner's final decision.

         DISCUSSION

         In support of her motion to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision, St. Laurent contends that the ALJ 1) erred in his residual functional capacity assessment by improperly substituting his lay judgment for that of the medical experts and 2) erred in his Step Five determination because the vocational expert's testimony relied on improper ...


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