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Ortega v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

July 18, 2019

Carol Ortega
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security


          Andrea K. Johnstone, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Carol Ortega 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 and supplemental social security income benefits. Ortega moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision, and the Acting Commissioner moves to affirm. 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.

         Standard of Review

         The court's review of a final decision of the Acting Commissioner in a social security case “is limited to determining whether the ALJ 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 Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). The court defers to the ALJ's findings of fact 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) (quoting Bath Iron Works Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 336 F.3d 51, 56 (1st Cir. 2003)); Astralis Condo. Ass'n v. Sec'y Dep't of Housing & Urban Dev., 620 F.3d 62, 66 (1st Cir. 2010) (“Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”).


         On October 18, 2016, Ortega filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental social security income. She alleged an amended disability onset date of August 28, 2016.[1] Ortega alleged a disability due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), memory problems, trust issues, and an aneurysm.

         After Ortega's claim was denied, she requested a hearing in front of an ALJ. On February 21, 2018, the ALJ held a hearing, during which Ortega, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified.

         On March 15, 2018, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. In reaching her decision, the ALJ employed the requisite five-step sequential analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.[2] At the first step, the ALJ determined that Ortega had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of August 28, 2016.

         At the second step, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: ADHD, depression, and anxiety. The ALJ found that Ortega's aneurysm, though medically determined, was not a severe impairment. The ALJ also found that Ortega had hypertension, which was medically determined but non-severe. At the third step, the ALJ found that Ortega's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations.

         At step four, the ALJ considered whether Ortega retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. The ALJ found that Ortega had the RFC to perform “a full range of work at all exertional levels, ” except that she was limited to “simple tasks performed in two-hour blocks over a typical workday and workweek; occasional superficial interaction with the public; occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors; and occasional changes in routine and work setting.” Admin. Rec. at 21. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ considered the medical evidence in the record, certain medical opinions, and Ortega's statements and testimony. See Id. at 19-25.

         In assessing Ortega's RFC, the ALJ gave great weight to the opinion of Michael Schneider, Psy.D, a non-examining reviewing consultant, on the basis of his experience and specialty in mental health. The ALJ also found that Dr. Schneider's opinion was most consistent with the record. The ALJ gave “partial weight” to the May 2017 examining opinion of Sandra Vallery, Ph.D, discounting the opinion primarily because it did not contain details about the severity of the limitations it described.

         The ALJ gave little weight to the February 2018 opinion of Ortega's treating physician, Patricia Pangan, M.D. Dr. Pangan opined that Ortega's symptoms would frequently interfere with the concentration and attention required to perform simple work tasks. Dr. Pangan further opined that Ortega was incapable of performing “low stress” jobs because of “untreated depression, ” that Ortega was unable to stand or walk for long durations or intervals; and that Ortega was only able to occasionally perform lifting and carrying and rarely able to perform postural changes. The ALJ concluded that Dr. Pangan assigned limitations based on mental health issues, but that she was not a mental health specialist and her treatment records and notes were inconsistent with the mental health issues indicated in the opinion.

         The ALJ also considered Ortega's own statements and testimony. The ALJ found that, although Ortega's impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms described at the hearing, Ortega's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” Admin. Rec. at 22. Accordingly, the ALJ accepted Ortega's statements “only to the extent they can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical and other evidence.” Id.

         Given Ortega's RFC, the ALJ found at step five that Ortega could perform her past work as a laboratory glass washer. The ALJ therefore concluded that Ortega was not disabled.

         On August 8, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Ortega's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Acting ...

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