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Tellier v. U.S. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

July 10, 2018

Sophie Tellier
v.
US Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge

         Sophie Tellier challenges the denial of her application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to consider the limiting effects of her joint pain and degenerative knee condition in formulating her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). She also contends that the ALJ failed to adequately explain the persuasive weight given to her own subjective statements concerning her physical symptoms. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. For the reasons that follow, I deny Tellier's motion and affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Tellier is a 57 year-old woman with a high school education. See Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”) 62. She has previously worked as a pharmacy technician and teacher's aide. Doc. No. 12 at 1. Tellier has allegedly been disabled since October 6, 2014, [1] due to a combination of Meniere's disease, systemic lupus erythematous, left-sided hearing loss, and an anxiety disorder. See Tr. 44, 46-47.[2]

         Tellier's application for benefits was initially denied in June 2015. Her claim progressed to a hearing before ALJ Matthew G. Levin in August 2016, who ultimately denied her application. Doc. No. 12 at 1; see Tr. 44-53. On March 16, 2017, the Social Security Administration (SSA) Appeals Council denied her request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. See Tr. 1-7. Tellier now appeals.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ assessed Tellier's claim under the five-step, sequential analysis required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. He ultimately ended the inquiry at step four after finding that she was not disabled during the period in question.[3] At step one, he found that Tellier had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 6, 2014, her alleged disability onset date. Tr. 46. At step two, he found that Tellier had severe impairments of “Meniere's disease, systemic lupus erythematous, and left-sided hearing loss.” Id. He also found that Tellier had the non-severe impairment of “anxiety disorder.” Tr. 46-47. In making the latter determination, the ALJ considered the “four broad functional areas” known as the “paragraph B criteria, ” and concluded that Tellier had no more than moderate limitations in “activities of daily living, social functioning, or concentration, persistence, or pace.” Tr. 47.[4] He further noted, at step two, that Tellier's daily activities were consistent with a finding of no more than mild limitations in those areas. Id. Those activities included helping her husband get dressed and ready for work, preparing meals, performing chores, managing her finances, appointments, and medications, using the computer, and walking around the neighborhood. Tr. 47-48. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Tellier's impairments, considered individually or in combination, qualified for any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Tellier had the RFC to perform “light work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), “except she should avoid exposure to all hazards, temperature extremes, and loud background sounds.” Tr. 49. In making his determination the ALJ “considered all symptoms” as evidenced by treatment notes, clinical examinations, Tellier's reported daily activities, and her own subjective complaints. See Tr. 49-52. Symptoms of Tellier's Meniere's disease primarily included severe episodes of vertigo and vomiting, described as occurring once every two-to-three months, with “constant tinnitus.” Tr. 49, 51. Her lupus produced fatigue, bilateral hand and finger pain, “trace edema” in the hands and wrists, and aching in the ankles and left knee. Tr. 49-51. Although the ALJ found that Tellier's “impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, ” he found that her “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [those] symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” Tr. 49. Accordingly, he found that her testimony on that point was “not fully persuasive.” Tr. 49. He ultimately determined that the treatment notes showed that Tellier's Meniere's disease was stable and that her lupus was “well controlled with medication.” Tr. 51. He noted that nothing in the record warranted additional restrictions, specifically pertaining to the frequency and severity of the symptoms associated with each impairment during flares. Id.

         In light of the aforementioned RFC and testimony taken from a vocational expert (“VE”) at the hearing, the ALJ concluded that Tellier was “capable of performing her past relevant work as a pharmacy technician and a teacher's aide, ” as each occupation only demands capabilities at a light exertional level. See Tr. 53, 85-86. The VE had opined that a hypothetical person of a similar age, education, and vocational background to Tellier could perform both jobs notwithstanding the limitations contained in her RFC. Tr. 85-86. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Tellier had not been disabled from the alleged onset date through the date of his decision. Tr. 53.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         I am authorized to review the pleadings submitted by the parties and the administrative record and enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the “final decision” of the Commissioner. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). That review is limited, however, “to determining whether the [Commissioner] used the proper legal standards and found facts [based] upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). I defer to the Commissioner's findings of fact, so long as those findings are supported by substantial evidence. Id. Substantial evidence exists “if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [her] conclusion.” Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (per curiam) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)). If the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive, even where the record “arguably could support a different conclusion.” Id. at 770.

         If, however, the Commissioner derived her findings by “ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts, ” her findings are not conclusive. Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam). “Issues of credibility and the drawing of permissible inference from evidentiary facts are the prime responsibility of the Commissioner, and the resolution of conflicts in the evidence and the determination of the ultimate question of disability is for her, not for the doctors or for the courts." Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 13 (1st Cir. 2018) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Tellier alleges three errors with the ALJ's decision that she argues warrant reversal. Doc. No. 9-1. First, she contends that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because it does not contain limitations related to her joint pain in her wrists, hands, and left knee. Second, but similarly, she argues that the ALJ's RFC is flawed because, in making his determination, he ignored the effects of her “degenerative knee condition” in combination with her lupus. Third, Tellier argues that the ALJ's credibility assessment of ...


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