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Guay v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 25, 2019

Catherine Guay
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner, Social Security Administration[1]


          Joseph A. DiClerico, Jr., United States District Judge.

         Catherine Guay seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Commissioner’s decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income under Title XVI. In support, she contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)

         improperly assessed her residual functional capacity and failed to meet the Commissioner’s burden at Step Five of the sequential analysis used in social security decisions. The Commissioner moves to affirm.

         Standard of Review In reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner in a social security case, the court “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 Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001). The court defers to the ALJ’s factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence. § 405(g); Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 34 (1st Cir. 2016).. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence” but less than a preponderance. Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 13 (1st Cir. 2018). The court must affirm the ALJ’s findings, even if the record could support a different conclusion, when “a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the ALJ’s] conclusion.” Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (internal quotation marks omitted); accord Purdy, 887 F.3d at 13.

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of social security benefits, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920.[2] The claimant bears the burden through the first four steps of proving that his impairments preclude him from working. Purdy, 887 F.3d at 9. At the fifth step of the sequential analysis, the Commissioner bears the burden to show that a claimant can do work other than her past work. § 404, 1520(a)(4); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Heggarty v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 990, 995 (1st Cir. 1991).


         In February of 2015, Catherine Guay injured her index and “long” fingers on her left hand, her dominant hand, when she tried to unblock a snowblower. Although the wounds healed, her fingers remained stiff and painful with limited range of motion. She also had previously experienced anxiety and depression, related to aortic bypass surgery, which increased after the injury to her fingers.

         Guay returned to her job at a taxicab company after she injured her fingers. In September of 2015, she left the cab company and worked as an assembler for a medical device company. She left that job a year later because of pain in her left (injured) hand. During that time, she was treated by Dr. Heaps at the New Hampshire Orthopaedic Center and PCP APRN Odonell at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

         On September 30, 2016, Guay filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Guay had examinations by consultative medical examiners, as requested by the Social Security Administration.

         A hearing before an ALJ was held on October 26, 2017. Guay and a vocational expert testified at the hearing. The ALJ posed a hypothetical question of a person limited to light work, with the top weight being twenty-five pounds lifted with the right nondominant arm. The hypothetical excluded use of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; allowed occasional use of stairs; and excluded fine motor use of the left dominant hand for punching and gripping. In response, the vocational expert said that person could not do any of Guay’s past work. The vocational expert also testified that a person who could not handle with her dominant hand would be precluded from all work at the light and sedentary exertional levels.

         The ALJ continued the hearing in order to have a medical expert testify. The hearing resumed on February 1, 2018. Guay testified at the hearing, along with an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Darius Ghazi, M.D., and a different vocational expert. Dr. Ghazi testified that the injury to Guay’s fingers caused them not to function which interfered with the function of her left hand. Because of that condition, Dr. Ghazi said that Guay could not do anything bi-manually. Otherwise, her functional capacity depended on how well she could use her left hand. The ALJ did not let Dr. Ghazi testify about mental issues that would affect Guay’s motivation for rehabilitation. He said that Guay could climb stairs, but not a ladder, and should avoid hazards.

         The ALJ described a hypothetical person to the vocational expert as one who could do light work but had to avoid hazards, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and crawling and was limited to rare use of her left, dominant, hand for fingering or handling. The vocational expert said the person could not do Guay’s past work. She identified jobs that the person could do, which were furniture rental clerk, usher, and school bus monitor.

         With respect to the furniture rental clerk and usher, the vocational expert clarified that the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) described them as requiring occasional rather than only rare use of the hands but did not specify which hand would be used or whether both hands were necessary. Based on that lack of specificity, the vocational expert thought the furniture rental clerk and usher jobs could be performed with the nondominant hand. She qualified her response further by saying that there was a very limited base of those jobs.

         Guay’s attorney represented to the vocational expert that Guay had testified during the previous part of the hearing, where a different vocational expert appeared, that she could not write with her right hand or use a keyboard mouse with her right hand. In response, the vocational expert said that those limitations would eliminate the furniture rental clerk job. She also said, however, that the usher job “could perhaps still be performed” depending on her ability to accommodate the lack of use of her left hand with her nondominant right hand. Doc. 8-2 at 54. The vocational expert acknowledged that the school bus monitor job could require use of both hands and that only a small number of jobs were available.

         The ALJ issued a decision on February 14, 2018. The ALJ found that Guay had a severe impairment because of a swan neck deformity of her index finger and a malunion of her long finger on her left dominant hand. Despite that severe impairment, the ALJ found that Guay retained the functional capacity to perform light work except that she could use her left hand only rarely for fingering or handling, less than 5% of the work day; could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and needed to avoid all hazards. Based on the second vocational expert’s testimony, the ALJ found ...

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