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Holland v. U.S. Social Security Commission

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

February 7, 2019

Sheila Carol Holland
U.S. Social Security Commission, Acting Commissioner


          Landya McCafferty United States District Judge.

         Opinion 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.


         In 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. 2010).

         In 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).[1] 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iii).

         At the 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).


         A 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.

         I. Procedural Background

         On 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).

         On July 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 age).

         Holland's 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).

         On May 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.

         The 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.

         On 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 and testified.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         On 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.

         The ALJ found that Holland had the residual functional capacity to perform

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 ...

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