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Stafford v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 18, 2018

Dorothy L. Stafford
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

          Terry L. Ollila, Esq., T. David Plourde, Esq., D. Lance Tillinghast, Esq.

          ORDER

          Landya McCafferty, United States District Judge

         Dorothy L. Stafford 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. Stafford moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision, and the Acting Commissioner moves to affirm. For the following reasons, the Acting Commissioner's decision is vacated and remanded.

         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. 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 the RFC assessment. See Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         BACKGROUND[1]

         In April 2014, Stafford applied for disability insurance benefits. Concurrently, Stafford applied for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. Stafford claimed a disability that began on December 31, 2008, the date last insured.[2] As of the date last insured, she was 40 years old, had a high school education with two years of college, and had specialized training as a certified nurse's aide. Stafford had previously worked as an administrative assistant, health care aide, nanny, and preschool teacher. Stafford alleged that she was disabled because of Type I diabetes, Charcot foot conditions, peripheral neuropathy of the hand and foot, depression, sacroiliac joint inflammation, acid reflux disease, and high blood pressure. Stafford alleged that, since April 2003, she was only able to work part-time as a result of her impairments, which she continued to do until April 2014.

         During initial review, the Social Security Administration granted Stafford SSI benefits but not disability insurance benefits. The stated reason was that, while Stafford was disabled as of her application date (April 2014), there was insufficient evidence to determine whether she was disabled as of her date last insured (December 2008). Stafford sought a hearing before an ALJ on her application for disability insurance benefits.

         I. Hearing & Record Evidence

         On April 20, 2016, a hearing before an ALJ was held. Stafford was represented by an attorney and testified at the hearing. Howard Steinberg, a vocational expert, appeared and testified by phone.

         At the hearing, Stafford testified about the conditions that prevented her from working in late 2008. She alleged that she had (1) extreme fatigue, both from her impairments and medications; (2) lower back and foot pain that prevented her from sitting for more than thirty minutes; (3) poor focus and general unreliability as a result of the variability in her blood sugar levels; and (4) a need to lie down intermittently during the day. Stafford also discussed, in general terms, her lifestyle and ailments in and around 2008.

         Stafford's medical records from 2008 to 2010 shed more light on her conditions from that period. The court need not explain these records in detail; it suffices to say that they arguably show that, with the aid of physical therapy and medication, Stafford had greater abilities to work, engage in ...


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