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Lambert v. U.S. Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 5, 2018

Christian Lambert
v.
US Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge.

         Christian Lambert challenges the denial of his application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). He contends that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision denying his application should be reversed because his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) finding is not supported by substantial evidence and fails to fully incorporate certain manipulative limitations reflected in the medical record. Lambert also argues that the ALJ erred by failing to resolve an apparent inconsistency between vocational-expert testimony and related information in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. For the reasons that follow, I deny Lambert's motion and affirm the Acting Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Lambert is a 45 year-old man with a high school education. See Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”) 26, 204. He previously worked at Walmart from 2001 to 2006, as the manager of the electronics department, and then at Time Warner Cable from 2006 to 2015, as a customer service technician. Doc. No. 9 at 2; see Tr. 204, 209. Lambert has allegedly been disabled since March 16, 2015, due to Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (“CMT”), a disease that he has had since he was 18 years-old. See Tr. 44, 46-47, 56-57.[1]

         Lambert's application for benefits was initially denied in October 2015. Tr. 86-97. His claim progressed to a hearing before ALJ Paul G. Martin in January 2017, where Lambert was represented by counsel. His claim was ultimately denied by the ALJ in a written decision issued on March 1, 2017. Doc. No. 9 at 1; see Tr. 18-28. On May 31, 2017, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Appeals Council denied Lambert's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making it the final decision of the Acting Commissioner and ripe for judicial review. See Tr. 1-7. Lambert now appeals.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ assessed Lambert's claim under the five-step, sequential analysis required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. He ultimately ended the inquiry by finding that Lambert was not disabled at step five[2] because he “was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work” existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 27. At step one, the ALJ found that Lambert had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 16, 2015, his alleged disability onset date. Tr. 20. At step two, he found that Lambert's Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (“CMT”) was a severe impairment. Id. “[A]lso described as hereditary peripheral neuropathy, ” CMT “primarily affects the lower and upper extremities, ” see id., particularly Lambert's “fine and gross motor coordination as well as his balance and his gait.” Tr. 38. At step three, the ALJ found that Lambert's CMT did not qualify as a listed impairment as set forth 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, which would have rendered him disabled per se. Tr. 21.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Lambert had the RFC to perform “light work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that he could only stand and/or walk for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday, and could only sit for up to six hours total. Tr. 21. The ALJ also found that Lambert could “occasionally climb, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, ” but that he could “never balance” or “climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds.” Id. He further found that Lambert must “avoid hazardous machines and heights . . . all writing other than signatures, ” and must also “avoid competitive keyboarding and repetitive handling.” Id. In making his determination, the ALJ “considered all symptoms” as evidenced by treatment notes, clinical examinations, Lambert's reported daily activities, and his own subjective complaints. See Tr. 21-26. These symptoms primarily included “tremor and hand limitations, and weakness, numbness and pain in his lower extremities associated with activity, ” which made it difficult for him to stand, walk and, balance. See Tr. 22. His “bilateral drop foot” caused him to regularly “trip” over himself when walking and feel unsteady on his feet. See Tr. 22, 51-52. Lambert also claimed to experience loss of sensation in his hands and decreased strength in his fingers. He testified that “due to shakiness and poor motor control, he [had] difficulty gripping a pencil or doing tasks such as opening food containers, ” and that he had “poor handwriting” that “improve[d] if he [wrote] slowly.” Tr. 22, 51-53. He also testified that he experienced difficulty typing but said that he could use the “hunt and peck” typing method. Tr. 22, 56, 62.

         Although the ALJ found that CMT “could reasonably be expected to cause [Lambert's] alleged symptoms, ” he found that Lambert's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” Tr. 22. The ALJ found that the medical record did indicate progressive symptoms of “pain or discomfort, numbness, tremors and weakness, as well as ankle or gait instability, ” collectively “limiting his tolerance for prolonged standing and walking and some postural activities, as well as repetitive handling.” Tr. 22. But the ALJ also found evidence that Lambert retained “basic functions with the hands[, ] such as manipulating utensils and ‘hen peck' typing, ” and that he could “manage[] short periods of standing and walking with use of boots.” Tr. 22; see Tr. 56. Lambert's activities of daily living cited by the ALJ included “working part-time as a caretaker for individuals with developmental disabilities . . . shopping, limited yard work with help from his son, caring for his dogs, taking out the trash, preparing meals, and visiting friends . . . watching television . . . and play[ing] computer games.” Tr. 22, 217-224. In light of these findings, and testimony from a Vocational Expert (“VE”) considering Lambert's relevant description and work experience, the ALJ concluded Lambert was unable to perform his past relevant work as a “retail department manager and customer service representative.” Tr. 26.

         At step five, however, the ALJ concluded that Lambert was “capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exist[ed] in significant numbers in the national economy, ” and that a finding of “not disabled” was therefore warranted under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Tr. 27. The ALJ based his conclusion on the testimony of a VE taken at the January 2017 hearing, who considered a hypothetical person with Lambert's age, education, work experience, and RFC. Tr. 27, 65-74. When questioning the VE, the ALJ recited the aforementioned RFC to the VE, placing particular emphasis on “a need to avoid all writing other than maybe a signature or something similar, ” and a need to avoid “competitive paced keyboarding and repetitive handling.” Tr. 68. When asked by the VE to clarify the meaning of “repetitive handling, ” i.e. whether it meant “occasional” or “frequent, ” the ALJ responded: “Repetitive in terms of-in the truest sense of repetitive, not in terms of frequent or occasional, but more the ability to do so for a long[, ] prolonged period, over and over.” Tr. 68. The VE, understanding repetitive to mean “repeating the same types of motion over and over again, ” see Tr. 68, then opined that such a person could perform work as a “ticket taker, ” a “telephone solicitor, ” or a “final assembler [of] optical goods.” Tr. 69-71. The VE further testified that those three jobs existed in the national economy at levels of 73, 000; 72, 000; and 14, 000 positions, respectively. See 69-71. The ALJ cited to this testimony in his March 2017 decision and noted that he had determined it to be “consistent with the information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, ” as required by Social Security Ruling 00-4p. Tr. 27. Accordingly, in considering the availability of those 159, 000 positions consisting of either “light” or “sedentary” work that Lambert could still perform, the ALJ found that Lambert had not been disabled from the onset date through the date of the decision. Tr. 27 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).

         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 curium). “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. ...


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