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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Rhode Island

August 29, 2014

JOYCE C. BROWN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


JOHN J. McCONNELL, JR., United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Joyce Brown was forty-four years old when she stopped working as a Family Service Coordinator with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families in 2004. (Tr. at 33). When that position ended, she attempted to find other similar employment, but stopped looking in approximately 2010 because she felt her health conditions prevented her from being a dependable employee. (Tr. at 36-37). She had previously worked as an insurance adjuster for her father's company. (Tr. at 34-35). She testified at her 2012 hearing that she vomits and has diarrhea every day, has severe migraines, and hypothyroidism. (Tr. at 38).

On March 25, 2010, Ms. Brown applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. (Tr. at 89-90). That application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. at 42, 43, 46-48, 50-53, 349, 367). Ms. Brown timely requested a hearing, which was held on February 8, 2012 and at which she was represented by counsel and testified. (Tr. at 27-41). Following the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge issued a decision denying her request for benefits, finding that she was not disabled between the alleged onset date of June 13, 2004 and the date her insured status expired on March 31, 2005. (Tr. at 13-22). Ms. Brown requested a review of the ruling, which the Appeals Council denied. (Tr. at 1-5, 11-12). Upon this denial, the ALJ's decision became the Social Security Commissioner's final ruling and is now ripe for this Court's review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

Ms. Brown has appealed to this Court. (ECF No. 1). Ms. Brown requests relief under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking to reverse and remand the ALJ's decision. (ECF No. 5). She contends that the ALJ's decision contains errors of law and its factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence in the record. (Id. at 1). Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security has moved for an affirmance of the ALJ's decision "because substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's finding that [Ms. Brown] was not disabled during the relevant time period." (ECF No. 6 at 1).


A district court's role in reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. Although questions of law are reviewed de novo, "[t]he 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). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consol. Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

The determination of substantiality must be made upon an evaluation of the record as a whole. The Court "must uphold the Secretary's findings ... if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support his conclusion." Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981); see also Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991). In reviewing the record, the Court must avoid reinterpreting the evidence or otherwise substituting its own judgment for that of the Secretary. See Colon v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 877 F.2d 148, 153 (1st Cir. 1989). The resolution of conflicts in the evidence is for the Commissioner, not the courts. Rodriguez, 647 F.2d at 222.

The court must reverse the ALJ's decision on plenary review, however, if the ALJ applies incorrect law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that he or she properly applied the law. Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam). Remand is unnecessary where all of the essential evidence was before the Appeals Council when it denied review, and the evidence establishes without any doubt that the claimant was disabled. Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 11 (1st Cir. 2001) (citing Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 973 (6th Cir. 1985)).

The ALJ must follow five well-known steps in evaluating a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.[1]Significantly, the claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the Commissioner bears the burden of proving step five, that a claimant's impairments do not prevent her from doing other work that exists in the national economy. Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 890 F.2d 520, 524 (1st Cir. 1989) (per curiam).

The ALJ's decision in Ms. Brown's case hinged on the step two severity requirement. In considering whether a claimant's physical and mental impairments are severe enough to qualify for disability, the ALJ must consider the combined effect of all of the claimant's impairments, and must consider any medically severe combination of impairments throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B).


In Ms. Brown's case, the ALJ found that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability; and that she had medically determinable impairments, i.e. migraines; gall bladder surgery; kidney stones. (Tr. at 18). However, the ALJ ultimately concluded that she did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments because that combination of impairments did not substantially limit her ability to perform basic work-related activities. (Tr. at 19). As a result, the ALJ concluded, without going past step two, that Ms. Brown was not under a disability from June 13, 2004 through March 31, 2005. (Tr. at 22).


Ms. Brown's medical record begins in May of 2003, when she was seen at Rhode Island Hospital and ultimately admitted for gall bladder surgery, following over a year of complaints of "right upper quadrant pain intermittently associated with nausea and vomiting. The pain was worse with oral intake and she was originally seen in the ER for this pain on 05/02/03, where a right upper quadrant ultrasound was obtained which revealed no gallstones." (Tr. at 144). She had the surgery on May 13, 2003 and was discharged the next day without complications. (Tr. at 145). Ms. Brown sought treatment post-surgery at Kent Hospital Emergency Room (Kent ER) on May 22, 2003 and May 26, 2003, both times complaining of abdominal pain and vomiting. (Tr. at ...

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