United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
McCafferty United States District Judge.
No. 2019 DNH 023 Sheila Holland seeks judicial review of the
decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration, denying in part her application for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental social
security income. Holland moves to reverse the Acting
Commissioner's decision, and the Acting Commissioner
moves to affirm. For the reasons discussed below, the court
grants the Acting Commissioner's motion to affirm and
denies Holland's motion to reverse.
reviewing the final decision of the Acting Commissioner in a
social security case, the court “is limited to
determining whether the [Administrative Law Judge] 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.
determining whether a claimant is disabled, the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) follows a
five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4) & 416.920(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. §§
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. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform her past
relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to Step Five, where 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).
detailed statement of the facts can be found in the
parties' Joint Statement of Material Facts (doc. no. 12).
The court provides a brief summary of the case here.
September 17, 2013, Holland filed an application for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental social
security income, alleging a disability onset date of May 2,
2013, when she was 51 years old. After Holland's claim
was denied at the initial level, she requested a hearing in
front of an ALJ. On February 24, 2015, the ALJ held a
hearing, and he denied Holland's claim for benefits in a
written decision dated March 20, 2015. On May 20, 2016, the
Appeals Council denied Holland's request for review,
making the ALJ's decision the Acting Commissioner's
final decision. Holland brought an action in federal court
challenging that decision (the “federal court
action”). See Holland v. U.S. Soc. Sec. Admin.,
Acting Comm'r, 16-cv-269-JL (D.N.H. June 22, 2016).
7, 2016, while the federal court action was pending, Holland
filed another claim for social security benefits. This second
claim was based, in part, on Holland approaching her 55th
birthday, a milestone which when reached would put Holland in
the “advanced age” category under the social
security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1563(e). The medical-vocational rules are more favorable
to claimants once they reach advanced age. See
Id. § 404.1568(d)(4) (discussing standards
applicable to a claimant once he or she reaches advanced
second claim for benefits was approved at the initial level.
She was awarded benefits effective November 13, 2016, the day
before her 55th birthday. See Id. §
416.963(b) (discussing how a claimant may be considered an
advanced age within “a few days to a few months of
reaching” that category).
7, 2017, upon an assented-to motion by the Acting
Commissioner, the district court remanded the federal court
action, which pertained to Holland's first claim for
benefits, to the Acting Commissioner for further
administrative proceedings. The Appeals Council subsequently
vacated the Acting Commissioner's decision and remanded
the case to the ALJ. See Admin. Rec. at 725.
Appeals Council directed the ALJ to resolve two issues.
First, the Appeals Council stated that the rationale for
discounting the opinion of Holland's treating physician,
Dr. Douglas Taylor, was inadequate. Id. Second, the
Appeals Council found that there was an unresolved conflict
between the assessed residual functional capacity and the
examples of occupations cited in the decision as
representative of those a person like Holland could perform.
Id. The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to
consolidate Holland's initial claim with her second
claim, and to issue a new decision addressing both claims.
Id. at 726.
September 28, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing on Holland's
consolidated claims. Holland, who was represented by an
attorney, appeared and testified. Two non-examining impartial
medical experts, Drs. Chukwuemeka Efobi and Peter Schosheim,
and a vocational expert, Christine Spaulding, also appeared
November 15, 2017, the ALJ issued a partially favorable
decision. He agreed with the finding at the initial level
that Holland was disabled and entitled to benefits as of
November 13, 2016. The ALJ found that Holland was not
disabled prior to that date.
found that Holland had the residual functional capacity to
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b),
except she is able to lift/carry up to 20 pounds occasionally
and 10 pounds frequently when using both arms, but less than
10 pounds when using her right arm alone; and sitting,
standing and walking for up to 6 hours each in an 8-hour
workday. She is able to frequently balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch and climb ramps and stairs, with no crawling and
climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She must avoid any
overhead reaching with her right upper extremity, and may
occasionally reach forward and perform lateral reaching with
her right upper extremity. She may occasionally finger,
handle and feel with her right hand. She must avoid hazards
such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery, and
avoid vibrations. She is able to maintain attention and
concentration for two-hour increments throughout an
eight-hour workday for work requiring simple and short
instructions and familiar tasks.
Admin. Rec. at 618. In assessing Holland's RFC, the ALJ
considered Holland's testimony as to her activities of
daily living and symptoms, as well as her medical ...