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Steffens v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

February 21, 2017

CORY STEFFENS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          John J. McConnell, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Cory Steffens seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for Social Security Disability Benefits ("SSDI"). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that Mr. Steffens had severe impairments, specifically that he suffered from an affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and a personality disorder, but that he was not disabled because he retained the ability to perform the full range of work with certain non-exertional limitations consistent with his limited concentration, persistence, and pace. Mr. Steffens appeals the Commissioner's ruling on two grounds", first, that the ALJ did not base her RFC determination on substantial evidence in the record, and second, that her credibility assessment was also not based on substantial evidence.

         After a thorough review of the record and the briefing in this matter, this Court finds that Mr. Steffens has not met his burden to show that the ALJ's decision is unsupported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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). The term "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." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated 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. 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. The resolution of conflicts in the evidence is for the Commissioner, not the courts. Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981) (citing Richardson, 402 U.S. at 399).

         III. APPLICABLE LAW

         Disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment" or combination of impairments "which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), (d)(2)(B); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 ("Unless your impairment is expected to result in death, it must have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. We call this the duration requirement.").

         The ALJ must follow five well-known steps in evaluating a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments, which significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then he does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his RFC, age, education and past work) prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). Significantly, the claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the Commissioner bears the burden of proving step five. Goodermote v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 7 (1st Cir. 1982).

         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). Importantly, the ALJ must make specific and pronounced findings when deciding whether an individual is disabled. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 534 (11th Cir. 1993).

         IV. ALJ'S DECISION

         Following the five steps, the ALJ found that: (i) Mr. Steffens had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 12, 2013, the application date; (2) Mr. Steffens had severe impairments of affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder; (3) Mr. Steffens did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix l; (4) Mr. Steffens could not perform his past relevant work, but retained the RFC to perform a full range of exertional work with certain limitations; and (5) he is capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy including unskilled medium, light, and sedentary work. In sum, the ALJ determined that Mr. Steffens was not disabled.

         V. ANALYSIS

         A. The ALJ's RFC Determination is Supported by Substantial Evidence

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Steffens retained the RFC to perform a full range of exertional work with certain limitations. Mr. Steffens argues that this is error because the ALJ based this conclusion on her finding that his mental status exams were "generally intact" or "intact" in the face of opinions in the record from Dr. Louis Cerbo, Dr. Ronald Paolino, and treaters from Bridge Mark and Thundermist Health Center that he suffered from racing thoughts, ADHD, irritability, difficulty controlling anger, paranoia, and depression. The ...


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