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Pavlakos v. U.S. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

August 14, 2018

Robert Pavlakos
U.S. Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

          Ruth Dorothea Heintz, Esq.

          Sarah E. Choi, Esq.

          T. David Plourde, AUSA


          Joseph N. Laplante United States District Judge.

         Robert Pavlakos has appealed the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) at the SSA ruled that, despite several severe impairments, Pavlakos retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and thus is not disabled.[1] See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council denied Pavlakos's request for review, with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on his application, see id. § 404.981. Pavlakos then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Pavlakos has moved to reverse the decision. See LR 9.1(b). The Acting Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. See LR 9.1(c). After careful consideration, the court denies Pavlakos's motion and grants the Acting Commissioner's motion.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         The court limits its review of a final decision of the SSA “to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). It “review[s] questions of law de novo, but defer[s] to the Commissioner's findings of fact, so long as they are supported by substantial evidence, ” id., that is, “such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). Though the evidence in the record may support multiple conclusions, the court will still 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). The court therefore “must uphold a denial of social security . . . benefits unless ‘the [Acting Commissioner] has committed a legal or factual error in evaluating a particular claim.'” Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (quoting Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 885 (1989)).

         II. Background [2]

         The ALJ invoked the requisite five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing Pavlakos's request for disability and disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. After determining that Pavlakos had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset of his disability on February 15, 2008, the ALJ analyzed the severity of his impairments. At this second step, the ALJ concluded that Pavlakos had the following several impairments: bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and degenerative disc disease.[3]

         At the third step, the ALJ found that Pavlakos's severe impairments did not meet or “medically equal” the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations.[4] See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. In doing so, the ALJ rejected the opinion of impartial medical expert Dr. Richard Cohen, who opined that Pavlakos's mental impairments equaled listing 12.04.

         After reviewing the medical evidence of record, medical opinions, and Pavlakos's own statements, the ALJ concluded that Pavlakos retained the RFC to perform light work, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that he could:

[o]ccasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; he would be limited to simple-unskilled work; he could persist at tasks for two-hour periods over an eight-hour day and forty-hour week; and he could sustain brief and superficial social interaction with the general public, co-workers, and supervisors.[5]

         Finding that, even limited in this manner, Pavlakos was able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566 and 416.966, the ALJ concluded his analysis and found that Pavlakos was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         III. Analysis

         Pavlakos challenges the ALJ's decision on three fronts, arguing that the ALJ erred by: (1) rejecting Dr. Cohen's opinion that Pavlakos's mental impairments medially equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (2) concluding that Pavlakos has the RFC to perform full-time work; and (3) relying on an incomplete hypothetical question to the vocational expert in finding that Pavlakos can perform work available in the local and national economy.[6] The court addresses each argument in turn.

         A. Dr. Cohen's opinion

         The ALJ called Dr. Cohen, a board-certified psychiatrist, to testify as a medical expert at Pavlakos's hearing. Dr. Cohen testified that Pavlakos's bipolar disorder, PTSD, and a previously undiagnosed dependent personality disorder were severe impairments.[7] He concluded that these impairments did not meet or equal the “B criteria” of Listing 12.04 because they only moderately impaired Pavlakos's activities of daily living, social functioning, and ability to concentrate, persist, and keep pace, and because he had no episodes of decompensation for extended duration.[8] Dr. Cohen further opined, however, that Pavlakos's mental impairments, when combined with chronic pain from his physical impairments, medically equaled Listing 12.04C(2).[9] Specifically, he concluded that “the stress of working would increase his mood swings, . . . nightmares and flashbacks, . . . anxiety, . . . grandiosity, [and] racing thoughts to the point where he's missed more than three days of work a month.”[10] The ALJ rejected this conclusion.

         The ALJ “is responsible for deciding the ultimate legal question whether a listing is met or equaled.” Titles II & XVI: Consideration of Admin. Findings of Fact by State Agency Med. & Psychological Consultants & Other Program Physicians & Psychologists at the Admin. Law Judge & Appeals Council (“SSR 96-6P”), 1996 WL 374180, *3 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996).[11] “In evaluating the opinions of medical sources on issues, ” such as this one, which are “reserved to the Commissioner, the [ALJ] must apply the applicable factors in 20 CFR 404.1527(d) and 416.927(d).” Titles II & XVI: Med. Source Opinions on Issues Reserved to the Comm'r (“SSR 96-5P”), 1996 WL 374183, *3 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). Under those regulations, the ALJ uses medical sources “to provide evidence, including opinions, on the nature and severity of [the applicant's] impairment(s), ” but retains “the final responsibility for deciding” whether a petitioner's “impairment(s) meets or equals” a listing. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2). “Although an ALJ is not free to simply ignore medical opinions supporting a claimant's ...

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