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Trudnak v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

May 3, 2018

Brenda Trudnak
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security


          Landya McCafferty, United States District Judge

         Brenda Trudnak seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying her application for disability insurance benefits. Trudnak moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision, contending that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by failing to perform a function-by-function assessment for purposes of determining her residual functional capacity, and by failing to determine the medical necessity of her assistive devices. The Acting Commissioner moves to affirm. For the reasons explained below, the court remands this case to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings.


         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. 42 U.S.C. § 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).

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant "has the burden of production and proof at the first four steps of the process." Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001) . The first three steps are (1) determining whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) determining whether she has a severe impairment; and (3) determining whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (4) (i)-(iii) .

         At the fourth step of the sequential analysis, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is a determination of the most a person can do in a work setting despite her limitations caused by impairments, Id. § 404.1545(a)(1), and her past relevant work, Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv)). If the claimant can perform her past relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled. See Id. If the claimant cannot perform her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to Step Five, in which the ALJ has the burden of showing that jobs exist in the economy which the claimant can do in light of her residual functional capacity assessment. See Id. § 404.1520(a) (4) (v) .


         On March 25, 2014, Trudnak applied for disability insurance benefits, claiming a disability that began on June 10, 2013. She was 48 years old at the time of her application, had a high school education, and had previously worked as a licensed nursing assistant ("LNA"). Trudnak alleged that she was disabled because of lower-back problems and an injured left leg, which arose from an incident at work where Trudnak pulled her left leg while moving a patient.

         I. Record Evidence

         On March 17, 2016, a hearing before an ALJ was held on Trudnak's application for benefits. Trudnak was represented by an attorney and testified at the hearing. Michael La Raia, a vocational expert, appeared and testified by phone.

         In order to provide some context, the court summarizes relevant portions of the record. Generally, Trudnak presented evidence to show that, as a result of her lower-back problems and the symptoms resulting therefrom, she had extremely limited mobility and could not stand or walk for even short periods of time.

         On this question, the medical records are mixed. Some records show that, since June 2013, Trudnak has had significant pain in her back and left leg, which limits her ability to walk and stand. Over the years since her accident, Trudnak reported and sought treatment for these medical issues, and she has variously used a cane, a walker, and crutches to ambulate and perform daily activities. In addition, at the hearing, Trudnak testified about her physical limitations in her current part-time job as a linen folder. Trudnak testified that, during a 7.5 hour workday, she alternates between standing and sitting every twenty minutes, and she takes approximately four thirty-minute breaks in order to lie down in her van.

         On the other hand, there are medical records which indicate that, since 2013, Trudnak has been able to ambulate without assistance, and which arguably show that Trudnak's alleged functional limitations are more intermittent than continuous.

         The record also contains a No. of evaluations completed by various medical professionals regarding Trudnak's capacity to work. In September 2014, Louis Rosenthall, M.D., the state agency consultant, completed an RFC assessment. He opined that Trudnak could only perform sedentary work, could stand or walk for up to two hours per eight-hour workday, and required a cane throughout the workday. In February 2016, Dennis Badman, M.D., ...

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