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Bombard v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 11, 2019

Gayle A. Bombard
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security



         Gayle Bombard 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. Bombard 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.


         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 Administrative Law Judge'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 review is more deferential than it might sound to the lay ear: though certainly ‘more than a scintilla' of evidence is required to meet the benchmark, a preponderance of evidence is not. Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 13 (1st Cir. 2018) (internal citation omitted). “Rather, the court must uphold the Commissioner's findings if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support her conclusion.” Id.

         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). 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).


         A detailed factual background can be found in Bombard's statement of facts (doc. no. 9-2) and the Acting Commissioner's statement of facts (doc. no. 10). The court provides a brief summary of the case here.

         On November 16, 2015, Bombard filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of November 15, 2014. She later amended her disability onset date to May 5, 2015, when she was 51 years old. She alleged a disability due to degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, bilateral carpometacarpal osteoarthritis, neck pain, bilateral shoulder pain, bilateral leg pain, anxiety, and depression. Her last insured date was December 31, 2015.

         After Bombard's claim was denied, she requested a hearing in front of an ALJ. On March 29, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing. Bombard, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified, as did Warren Maxim, an impartial vocational expert.

         On July 14, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. He found that Bombard had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and obesity. The ALJ also found that Bombard's anxiety and depression were not severe impairments, and that her bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, neck pain, bilateral shoulder pain, bilateral carpometacarpal osteoarthritis, and bilateral leg pain were not medically determinable.

         The ALJ further found that Bombard had the residual functional capacity to

perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). Specifically, the claimant could lift twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. She could stand and walk for six hours and sit for six hours during an eight hour working day. She was unlimited in the use of her hands and feet to operate controls, push and pull. She could occasionally climb ladders, scaffolds and ropes and occasionally stoop. She could frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, crouch and crawl.

Admin. Rec. at 21. In assessing Bombard's residual functional capacity, the ALJ gave substantial weight to the opinion of Dr. Meghana Karande, a state agency medical consultant who reviewed Bombard's medical records.

         In response to hypotheticals posed by the ALJ, Maxim, the impartial vocational expert, testified that a person with Bombard's RFC could perform the job of a hairdresser and a hair salon/shop manager. Because Bombard had performed this work in the past, the ALJ found at Step Four that she was not disabled. In addition, Maxim testified that a person with Bombard's RFC could perform jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy. Based on this testimony, the ALJ found in the alternative at Step Five that Bombard was not disabled.

         On January 29, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Bombard's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Acting Commissioner's final decision. This action followed.


         Bombard raises three broad claims of error on appeal. She argues that the ALJ erred in: (1) evaluating the severity and effect of Bombard's impairments; (2) weighing the medical opinions in the record; and (3) evaluating Bombard's subjective complaints. The court addresses each argument below.

         I. Bombard's Impairments

         Bombard contends that the ALJ erred at Step Two in finding that her bilateral carpometacarpal osteoarthritis[1] was not a severe impairment. She also argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider the effects of Bombard's obesity in his RFC assessment, despite the ALJ finding that it was a severe impairment.

         A. Step Two - Severe Impairments

         At Step Two, the ALJ determines based on the record evidence whether the claimant has one or more medically determinable impairments that are severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(ii). An impairment or a combination of impairments is severe at Step Two if it “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. ยง 404.1520(c). It is the claimant's burden at ...

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