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Nelson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

November 6, 2017

LISA A. NELSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Lisa A. Nelson was forty-one years old on her alleged qualifying disability onset date. She alleges that she is disabled due to depression, anxiety, Crohn's Disease, vertigo, carpal tunnel in her left wrist, and sciatica.

         On December 20, 2013, Ms. Nelson applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. That application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Ms. Nelson timely requested a hearing, which was held on September 30, 2015 and at which she was represented by counsel and testified. A vocational expert also testified. 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 December 20, 2013 through the date of his decision. Ms. Nelson requested a review of the ruling, which the Appeals Council denied. Upon this denial, the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) 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. Nelson has appealed to this Court. ECF No. 1. She requests relief under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for further consideration and attorney's fees. ECF No. 12. Ms. Nelson's appeal focuses on the ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) limitation regarding her need to frequently use the bathroom. She contends that the ALJ's factual findings on that point are not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, has moved for an affirmance of the ALJ's decision. ECF No. 13. The Court, determining that the ALJ's findings were supported by relevant evidence in the record, declines to re-weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Ms. Nelson's motion, therefore, is denied and the decision is affirmed.


         A district court's role in reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. The court must reverse the ALJ's decision on plenary review 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). 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 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 Commissioner 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). In assessing a claim, "the Commissioner considers both objective and subjective factors, including: (1) objective medical facts; (2) the claimant's subjective claims of pain and disability, as supported by the testimony of the claimant or other witnesses; and (3) the claimant's educational background, age, and work experience." Robinson v. Berryhill, Case No. 16-CV-420-SM, 2017 WL 1843089, at *2 (D.N.H. May 8, 2017) (citing Avery v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 797 F.2d 19, 23 (1st Cir. 1986); Goodermote v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982)). A claimant is disabled only if his:

physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). See also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). Now the Court turns to the evidence in the case in order to consider the two pending motions.


         Ms. Nelson received her GED in 2000. She lives with her parents. She has worked in the past as a cashier, bus monitor, office manager, and telemarketer, but this work was not considered substantial gainful activity such that it would qualify as past relevant work under the guidelines. At the time of the hearing, she was working 25 hours a week as a cook at a pizzeria.

         Ms. Nelson has Crohn's Disease. Her treatment records during the review period from December 2013 show complaints of lower abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, cramping, diarrhea, and bloody stools. Examinations revealed abdominal tenderness and pain. Her Crohn's flare-ups were frequent and caused her to be seen at the hospital multiple times. Ms. Nelson has been medicated for this condition almost regularly, only stopping incident to surgery and during period of time when she was uninsured.

         Dr. Oscar Glieberman, the consultative examiner, examined Ms. Nelson in June 2014. She reported diarrhea and abdominal pain. He noted abdominal tenderness, but found her physical examination to be generally benign. Dr. Glieberman opined that Ms. Nelson could not lift ...

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