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Bunnell v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 5, 2019

Erika Bunnell
v.
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin.

          ORDER

          Landya McCafferty, United States District Judge.

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

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the final decision of the 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), [1]

         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, where 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 factual background can be found in the parties' statements of material facts (doc. nos. 8-2, 9-2). The court provides a brief summary of the case here.

         On November 24, 2015, Bunnell filed an application for disability insurance benefits. She alleged a disability onset date on that same date. Bunnell alleged a disability due to diabetes, gastroparesis, kidney disease, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD").

         After Bunnell's claim was denied, she requested a hearing in front of an ALJ. On July 21, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing, during which Bunnell, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified. At the start of the hearing, Bunnell tendered additional evidence related to her mental status, blood sugar instability, asthma, and a new neurological issue. The evidence was described by counsel as "just updates to the records that were already in the file." Admin. Rec. ("AR") at 133. Under 20 C.F.R. § 404.935, the ALJ refused to admit the evidence into the record because it was not tendered at least five days before the hearing.

         On September 12, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. He found that Bunnell had the following severe impairments: diabetes, gastroparesis, kidney disease, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and obesity. The ALJ also found that Bunnell's compulsive disorder and trichotillomania were not medically determinable severe impairments and that her retinopathy was a non-severe impairment. The ALJ found that Bunnell had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that she was limited to occasional work involving hazards (such as unprotected heights and moving machinery) and simple and routine tasks. Bunnell was also limited to simple work-related decisions.

         In assessing Bunnell's RFC, the ALJ gave strong weight to the opinion of Dr. Marie Turner, a state-agency physician who reviewed Bunnell's medical records on April 11, 2016. The ALJ also gave strong weight to the opinion of Dr. Laura Landerman, a state-agency psychologist, who reviewed Bunnell's medical records. The ALJ gave partial weight to the opinion of Dr. William Dinan, a psychologist who performed a consultative examination on Bunnell.

         The ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of treating physicians Dr. Robert Silver and Dr. Robert Stidwell. In their opinions, which substantially mirrored each other, the physicians stated that Bunnell needed to avoid exposure to odors, dusts, and gases, and they opined that Bunnell would be absent four days per month and off-task ten (Dr. Silver) to twenty-five (Dr. Stidwell) percent of the time at work.

         A vocational expert testified, in response to hypotheticals posed by the ALJ, that a person with Bunnell's RFC could perform jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy, including garment folder, sorter (agricultural produce), and cleaner/polisher.[2] Based on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found at Step Five that Bunnell was not disabled. On April 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Bunnell's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Acting Commissioner's final decision. This action followed.

         DISCUSSION

         Bunnell raises several claims of error on appeal. She argues that the ALJ erred by failing to admit the evidence presented to him at the hearing; by rejecting the opinions of Bunnell's treating physicians and Dr. Dinan and consequently failing to address whether Bunnell could sustain work given her limitations; ...


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