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Martin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

May 6, 2019

Paul Douglas Martin
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration



         Paul Martin moves to reverse the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) to deny his application for Social Security disability insurance benefits, or DIB, under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming her decision. For the reasons that follow, this matter is remanded to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. Scope of Review

         The scope of judicial review of the Acting Commissioner's decision is as follows:

The [district] court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .

42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, the court “must uphold a denial of social security disability benefits unless ‘the [Acting Commissioner] has committed a legal or factual error in evaluating a particular claim.'” Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of HHS, 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (quoting Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 885 (1989)).

         II. Background

         Martin was born in 1969. He has worked in construction, as a farm hand, as a stocker in a grocery store, and as an escort driver. He stopped working in August of 2014, and the date on which he was last insured for DIB, his “DLI, ” was December 31, 2015. Before his DLI, Martin was diagnosed with, and/or treated for obstructive sleep apnea, asthma, poorly controlled diabetes mellitus, insomnia, depression with anxiety, malaise, a transient ischemic attack, [1] nephrolithiasis, [2] benign essential hypertension, acute bronchitis, atrial fibrillation, morbid obesity, a ganglion cyst, and neuropathy.[3] Since his DLI, Martin has been diagnosed with “[p]robable right heart dysfunction (right heart failure), ” Administrative Transcript (hereinafter “Tr.”) 1305, and left-shoulder calcific tendinopathy.[4]

         Martin applied for DIB in February of 2015, claiming that he had been disabled since September 1, 2014, as a result of diabetic neuropathy, heart palpitation and hypertension, atrial fibrillation, insomnia, asthma, diverticulitis, depression and anxiety, and obstructive sleep apnea.

         In April of 2015, Dr. Marcia Lipski, a physician and state-agency consultant, reviewed Martin's medical records and assessed his physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”).[5]Martin underwent a consultative psychological examination in May of 2015, and a month later, Dr. Jan Jacobson, a state-agency psychological consultant, reviewed Martin's medical records and assessed his mental RFC. In November of 2015, Martin's primary care provider referred him to Drs. Karen Huyck and Raymond Klein “as part of a Social Security disability evaluation, ” Tr. 732. Drs. Huyck and Klein, in turn, “referred [Martin] for [a] residual functional capacity exam with [their practice's] occupational therapist to further objectively document his functional impairment.” Tr. 736. The occupational therapist, Gregory Morneau, performed the RFC exam that Dr. Huyck and Klein had requested, and he produced a report on it. Thereafter, Dr. Huyck reviewed Mr. Morneau's report with Martin, reproduced it in a progress note, and provided a brief commentary on it.

         The SSA denied Martin's application for DIB. He then requested, and received, a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). At the hearing, the ALJ took testimony from Dr. Joseph Gaeta, a cardiologist who reviewed Martin's medical records. Dr. Gaeta testified that none of Martin's physical impairments, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a “listed impairment, ” i.e., a medical condition on the SSA's list of impairments that are per se disabling. As to Martin's physical RFC, Dr. Gaeta testified that Martin had no exertional, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. But, with respect to postural activities, Dr. Gaeta opined that Martin: (1) was limited to occasional stooping, bending, crawling, and kneeling; and (2) needed to avoid hazardous machinery, heights, and the climbing of ladders and scaffolds.

         The ALJ also took testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”). He began by asking the VE to consider the following hypothetical individual:

[A] 47 year old with an eighth grade education and the Claimant's work history [with] no limitations with regard to lifting, sitting, standing, or walking [who] should avoid hazards, unprotected heights, and climbing ladders, scaffoldings, and ropes. The remaining postural are at occasional.

         Tr. 65. The VE testified that the individual described in the ALJ's hypothetical question, which was based on Dr. Gaeta's RFC assessment, could perform Martin's previous heavy-duty, semiskilled stock-clerk job, and could also perform three light-duty unskilled jobs: Marker II, Fruit Distributer, and Mail Clerk. The ALJ asked a second hypothetical question, positing an individual with claimant's same age, education, and work history, and who:

Can lift 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently. Can stand or walk for two hours, sit for six. Can occasionally operate foot controls with his lower extremities. Should never climb ladders, scaffoldings, or ropes, and the remaining posturals are at occasional.

Tr. 66-67. The VE testified that the individual described in the ALJ's second question, which was based on Dr. Lipski's RFC assessment: (1) could not do any of claimant's past work; (2) could not do the jobs of Marker II, Fruit Distributor, or Mail Clerk; but (2) could perform the sedentary unskilled jobs of Table Worker, Food and Beverage Order Clerk, and Surveillance System Monitor. In response to the ALJ's final hypothetical question, the VE testified that none of the three jobs he identified would be precluded if the hypothetical individual were further “limited to one to three step instructions and [was] able to sustain concentration, persistence, and pace during the typical two-hour periods of an eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, ” Tr. 68, a limitation that was based on Dr. Jacobson's assessment of Martin's mental RFC.

         In response to questioning by claimant's counsel, the VE testified that the Table Worker, Food and Beverage Order Clerk, and Surveillance System Monitor jobs: (1) would not be precluded if the hypothetical individual were limited to 30 minutes of standing at a time and 37 minutes of sitting at a time, limitations that appear to be based on Mr. Morneau's RFC assessment; (2) would not be precluded if the individual “would not be able to use his lower extremities for any kind of pushing or pulling, or foot controls, ” Tr. 70, a limitation that is more restrictive than the limitation on those exertional activities that Dr. Lipski described in her RFC assessment; but (3) would be precluded if the individual “had no ability to reach, handle, or finger, ” id., a limitation that appears to have no support in the medical-opinion evidence. The VE also testified that an inability to squat or stoop, another limitation that appears to lack support in the medical-opinion evidence, would preclude a person from doing the jobs of Food and Beverage Order Clerk and Table Worker, but would not preclude performance of the Surveillance System Monitor job.

         After Martin's hearing, the ALJ issued a decision in which he determined that Martin had two severe impairments, cardiac arrythmia and obesity, neither of which, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of any listed impairment. Then, the ALJ found that Martin

had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: he needs to avoid hazards, unprotected heights and climbing ladders/ scaffoldings/ropes [and] is limited to occasional climbing stairs/ramps and occasional bending, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling.

Tr. 27. In other words, the ALJ adopted Dr. Gaeta's opinions on claimant's physical RFC.

         When assessing Martin's RFC, the ALJ recounted various statements claimant had made “concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [the] symptoms [of his impairments], ” Tr. 27, but found that those statements were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record, ” Id. In addition, the ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Lipski's opinions, little weight to Mr. Morneau's RFC assessment, and great weight to Dr. Gaeta's opinions.

         Based on his assessment of Martin's RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that Martin could perform his past work as a grocery-store stocker. Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Martin was not under a disability from September 1, 2014, through December 31, 2015, which was the date on which he was last insured for DIB.

         III. ...

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