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Ledoux v. Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 12, 2018

John A. Ledoux, Jr.
v.
Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration

          ORDER

          Joseph A. DiClerico, Jr. United States District Judge

         John A. Ledoux, Jr. seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Acting Commissioner's most recent decision, denying his application for disability insurance benefits.[1] Ledoux contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in weighing the medical opinion evidence and in reviewing other record evidence, erred in assessing his residual functional capacity, and lacked substantial evidence to support his decision because of an incomplete hypothetical posed to the vocational expert. Ledoux also asks the court to remand for an award of benefits only. The Acting Commissioner moves to affirm, and, in the alternative, opposes the request to remand for an award of benefits.

         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 of evidence” but less than a preponderance of the evidence. Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 13 (1st Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted). 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); accord Purdy, 887 F.3d at 13.

         Background

         Ledoux applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in April of 2007. After the applications were denied and an ALJ found that Ledoux was not disabled, he sought judicial review. In January of 2011, the Commissioner and Ledoux submitted a joint assented-to motion to remand the case for further proceedings.

         The same ALJ held a second video hearing and issued a decision on March 1, 2012, that Ledoux was not disabled. Ledoux again sought judicial review. Because the administrative files were not available, the decision was vacated and the case was remanded.

         On remand, a different ALJ held another video hearing, and issued a decision on April 24, 2015, finding that Ledoux was not disabled through his last insured date of March 31, 2011, but had become disabled after October 24, 2012, based on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines because his age category changed to advanced age. He was awarded supplemental security income beginning on February 1, 2013. Ledoux sought judicial review of the unfavorable part of that decision, which was reversed and remanded in July of 2016.

         In response, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to consider whether Ledoux had transferable skills from his past work and to reevaluate the opinion evidence from the Occupational Therapist Lynn Chauvette and from the state agency consultant, Dr. Louis Rosenthall. The ALJ held a fourth video hearing with testimony from Ledoux and a vocational expert. In September of 2017, the ALJ again found that Ledoux was not disabled from his alleged onset date of June 6, 2017, through October 23, 2012, when his age category changed. Ledoux again sought judicial review.

         Most of the medical evidence was summarized in the court's prior decision, Ledoux v. Acting Commissioner, 13-cv-530-JD (D.N.H. July 6, 2016) (doc. no. 17), and will not be repeated here. In summary, Ledoux had back pain in 2006 that led to surgery with L3-L5 disc fusion in July of 2007. After surgery, Ledoux's back pain and associated limitations improved. He had a heart attack in October of 2008, and underwent a surgical procedure to place a stent in his coronary artery.

         Physical Therapist Ernest Roy did a functional capacity evaluation of Ledoux in August of 2007, right after his surgery. Roy could not do several tests because the surgery was so recent. Roy found that Ledoux could do light work on a fulltime basis but was severely restricted in his mobility for stooping, bending, and crouching. State agency consultant Dr. Akbar N. Sadri reviewed Ledoux's records in March of 2008 and concluded that Ledoux could do light work on a full-time basis but was limited to occasionally doing postural activities.

         Ledoux fell in January of 2009 and continued to report increased back pain after the fall. Testing revealed new degenerative disc disease issues, and his subsequent medical treatment notes document pain.

         In September of 2009, Ledoux saw Dr. Umashankar, a neurologist, for an evaluation of his lower back pain. Ledoux's physical examination showed normal results except for some diminished reflexes in his arm and sensory deficits in his knees. Dr. Umashankar wrote in his treatment notes that he assessed Ledoux with failed low back syndrome and that Ledoux could have mild peripheral neuropathy. He noted that Ledoux could not lift more than twenty pounds and could not bend forward or sideways. Dr. Umashankar also wrote that Ledoux would not be able to return to his former work as a carpenter.

         Ledoux's primary care physician, Dr. Hazard, referred him to occupational therapist Lynn Chauvette for a functional capacity evaluation, which was done in January of 2010.

         Chauvette found that Ledoux could work at a sedentary exertional level but could not maintain even part-time work because he would need to change position so frequently due to pain. She also found that Ledoux could never do postural activities such as balancing, bending, stooping, crawling, or kneeling and that he was limited to occasionally doing activities that require dexterity such as fingering, grasping, pinching and reaching forward. In April of 2010, Chauvette provided a letter that clarified Ledoux could not work at the sedentary level because of pain, that he would need medical supervision if he returned to work, and that a treating source had cleared Ledoux to lift more than was included at the sedentary capacity.

         The medical records through 2010 continue to document back pain. In August of 2010, Dr. Hazard ordered an MRI of Ledoux's neck because of pain in his neck and numbness in his left arm. The MRI showed mild foraminal narrowing at ¶ 3-4 and C4-5; disc extrusion, canal narrowing, and moderate to severe foraminal narrowing at ¶ 5-6; and posterior disc-osteophyte complex with posterior bony ridge, moderate stenosis, and moderate foraminal narrowing at ¶ 6-7. On September 2, Dr. Hazard found that the cervical disc pathology shown on the MRI was the reason for Ledoux's neck and arm symptoms. Dr. Hazard also reviewed Occupational Therapist Chauvette's functional capacity assessment and wrote that her report “seems credible.” Dr. Louis Rosenthall reviewed the record in November of 2010 and found that Ledoux could do sedentary work with occasional postural activities. Treatment notes after his last insured date in March of 2011 show continued back pain and radiating pain.

         In November of 2012, state agency consultant Dr. Burton Nault reviewed the medical records from August of 2012 through October of 2013 for a supplemental security income application that Ledoux had filed. Dr. Nault found that Ledoux had the ability to stand and or walk for three hours and sit for about six hours, to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, and to do postural activities occasionally.

         The ALJ issued a decision on September 22, 2017, and again concluded that Ledoux was not disabled between April of 2007 and his date last insured, March 31, 2011. The ALJ found that Ledoux had severe impairments due to degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine and coronary artery disease. He assessed a residual functional capacity to do sedentary work with the ability to alternate between sitting and standing at will, occasionally do postural activities, and a need to avoid climbing and workplace hazards. Based on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that Ledoux could not return to his former work but that other work existed that he could do.

         Discussion

         Ledoux contends that the Acting Commissioner's decision must be reversed because it is the result of the following errors:

(1) the ALJ erred in failing to adopt Occupational Therapist Chauvette's opinion that he was disabled by January of 2010,
(2) the ALJ again improperly relied on opinions of state agency consultants,
(3) the treating physician opinions do not support the ALJ's functional capacity assessment,
(4) the medical record supports a finding that Ledoux's symptoms worsened after 2009,
(5) the ALJ incorrectly assessed Ledoux's postural limitations,
(6) the ALJ failed to consider his headaches,
(7) the record does not support a finding that Ledoux could work full time, and
(8) the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert was incomplete.

         Ledoux asks that the court to award benefits rather than remanding the case for further administrative proceedings. The Acting Commissioner moves to affirm, and, alternatively, in the event the decision were reversed, ...


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