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Aldridge v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 5, 2019

Lisa Aldridge
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

          ORDER

          LANDYA MCCAFFERTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Lisa Aldridge seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g), of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying her application for disability insurance benefits. Aldridge moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision, and the Acting Commissioner moves to affirm. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Acting Commissioner is affirmed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 ALJ follows a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (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. § 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, in which 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).

         BACKGROUND

         A detailed statement of the facts can be found in the parties' Joint Statement of Material Facts (doc. no. 10). The court provides a brief summary of the case here.

         On October 13, 2014, Aldridge filed an application for disability insurance benefits. She alleged a disability onset date of November 1, 2012, which she subsequently amended to December 1, 2013. Aldridge alleged a disability due to headaches, lupus, degenerative disc disease, pinched nerve, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and depression/anxiety.

         After Aldridge's claim was denied, she requested a hearing in front of an ALJ. On September 19, 2016, the ALJ held a hearing, during which Aldridge, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified.

         On December 7, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. He found that Aldridge had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and depression. The ALJ also found that Aldridge's high blood pressure and high cholesterol were not severe impairments and that her lupus, headaches, and pinched nerve were not medically determined. The ALJ found that Aldridge had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567 (b), except that she was limited to simple, uncomplicated tasks with no more than one to three step instructions.

         In assessing Aldridge's residual functional capacity, the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinions of Dr. Peter Loeser, a physician specializing in internal medicine who performed a consultative exam on Aldridge on June 2, 2015; Dr. Cheryl Bildner, a psychologist who performed a consultative exam on Aldridge on June 8, 2015; and two state-agency consultants who reviewed Aldridge's medical records up to June 2015. The ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of Anita Lawrence, a physician's assistant who treated Aldridge.

         Christine Spaulding, an impartial vocational expert, testified at the hearing by telephone. In response to hypotheticals posed by the ALJ, Spaulding testified that a person with Aldridge's RFC could perform jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy, including fast food worker, cashier, and cleaner. The vocational expert also testified that Aldridge could perform her past work as an assembler. Based on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found at Step Four, and in the alternative at Step Five, that Aldridge was not disabled.

         On January 10, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Aldridge's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Acting ...


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