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Rutman v. U.S. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

November 1, 2018

Katie Lye Rutman
U.S. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

          Christopher G. Roundy, Esq. Terry L. Ollila, AUSA



         Katie Lye Rutman has appealed the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) at the SSA ruled that, despite severe impairments, Rutman retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and thus is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Appeals Council later denied Rutman's request for review, see Id. § 404.967, with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on her application, see Id. § 404.981. Rutman then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Rutman 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(e). After careful consideration, the court denies Rutman'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 relevant 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[1]

         The ALJ invoked the requisite five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing Rutman's request for disability and disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ found that Rutman was insured under the Social Security Act only through March 31, 2014.[2] See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i); 423. After determining that Rutman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between the alleged onset of her disability on April 1, 2013 and the date last insured, the ALJ analyzed the severity of her impairments. At this second step, the ALJ concluded that through the date last insured Rutman had several severe impairments: residual effects from motor vehicle accidents; chronic regional pain syndrome of the right upper extremity; carpal tunnel syndrome; migraine headaches; obesity; asthma; Major Depressive disorder; and Affective disorder.[3]

         At the third step, the ALJ found that through the date last insured Rutman'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. After reviewing the medical evidence of record, medical opinions, and Rutman's own statements, the ALJ concluded that Rutman retained the RFC through the date last insured to perform light work, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with additional limitations:

As for postural limitations, the claimant can stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl occasionally. In terms of manipulative limitations, the claimant can reach, handle, and finger frequently. She must avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes (i.e. extreme heat and extreme cold), wetness, humidity, and irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poorly ventilated areas. The claimant has the ability to carry[] out simple routine tasks, but can no longer remember or carry out detailed instructions. Furthermore, the claimant is limited to a low stress job (defined as only occasional decision-making and occasional changes in work setting), with no more than occasional interaction with the public and co-workers.[5]

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

         III. Analysis

         Rutman primarily challenges the ALJ's determination that she retained the RFC to perform light work, with additional limitations, through the date last insured. Rutman directs the argument portion of her memorandum entirely towards this step-four issue, focusing on the consideration of her right upper extremity limitations.[6] But, in conclusion, she asks the court to remand the case for redetermination of the separate step-three question of whether she had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in the Social Security regulations.[7] Rutman has not identified any alleged error in the ALJ's step-three analysis. In the portion of that analysis addressing Rutman's right upper extremity impairment, the ALJ reasonably explains that Rutman's impairment did not fall under listing 1.02 because her testimony showed she retained the ability to perform fine and gross movements with her upper extremities effectively.[8] As there is no alleged or obvious error in the step-three analysis, the court focuses on Rutman's challenge to the ALJ's RFC determination.

         In her brief arguments against the ALJ's RFC determination, Rutman questions the ALJ's decisions to afford little weight to both the results of June 2016 functional capacity testing and a June 2016 opinion submitted by Maria Martin, PA-C.[9] First, Rutman suggests the ALJ erred by awarding “partial weight” to an assessment based on October 2012 functional capacity testing but only “little weight” to the assessment based on the 2016 testing.[10] The ALJ adequately justified this difference. The ALJ acknowledged that the 2016 testing showed that Rutman's “functional capacities have deteriorated in some aspects such as in her ability to use her hands and in her lifting ability.”[11]But he gave that assessment little weight “because it is well after the expiration of the date last insured and is from an unacceptable medical source, who cannot provide a medical opinion.”[12] The 2016 testing occurred a little over two years after the date Rutman was last ...

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