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Sheehan v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 27, 2019

Dori Leigh Sheehan
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration


          Andrea K. Johnstone United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Dori Leigh Sheehan moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision to deny her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits, under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423. (Doc. No. 10). The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming her decision. (Doc. No. 12). Those motions are before this magistrate judge for a report and recommendation. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Acting Commissioner, as announced by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), should be affirmed.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         The court limits its review of a final decision of the Social Security Administration “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 evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). “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) (quoting Bath Iron Works Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 336 F.3d 51, 56 (1st Cir. 2003)).

         Thus, 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). Ultimately, the court “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 Sheehan's request for benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. After determining that she met the Social Security Act's insured status requirements and had not engaged substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset of his disability on April 5, 2012, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq., 416.971 et seq., the ALJ analyzed the severity of Sheehan's impairments. At this second step, the ALJ concluded that Sheehan had the following severe impairments: substance abuse disorder, anxiety disorder and depressive disorder. Admin. R. at 22; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At the third step, the ALJ found that Sheehan's severe impairments did not meet or “medically equal” the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations. Id. at 23; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525-26, 416.920(d), 416.925-26.

         After reviewing the medical evidence of record, medical opinions, and Sheehan's statements and hearing testimony, the ALJ concluded that Sheehan retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional limitations:

She is limited to routine work day to day that is not fast-paced, defined as assembly lines, timed work, or work with strict quotas. She is capable of work that includes no more than occasional interaction with the general public and no tandem tasks, meaning there would be no situation that would result in another employee waiting for the claimant to finish her task. The job should be located in the same work location with few, if any, changes day to day.

Id. at 15.

         The ALJ found that, limited in this manner, Sheehan would not be able to perform her past relevant work. Id. At 34. Based on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ also found that Sheehan could perform other jobs that exist in the national economy, such as housekeeper, merchandise marker, and office helper. Id. at 34-35. The ALJ accordingly concluded that Sheehan was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time period. Id. at 35; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g).

         III. Analysis

         Sheehan challenges the ALJ's decision on two grounds. First, she asserts that the ALJ erroneously evaluated opinion evidence in formulating her RFC. Next, she argues that the ALJ erroneously evaluated Sheehan's testimony regarding her symptoms and ...

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