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Mary K. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

July 30, 2018

MARY K., Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Mary K[1] appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her benefits. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Ms. K's motion to reverse and/or remand and DENIES the Commissioner's motion to affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. K is a fifty-four-year-old divorced woman who lives in her brother's house and receives food stamps for sustenance. She has completed the ninth grade and has not obtained a GED. Since at least 2002, Ms. K did work at a table in the shipping department of a jewelry company. Her onset of disability began in November 2013, when she had to leave work because she would often fall asleep unexpectedly. She also suffers from anxiety and depression.

         For many years, Ms. K sought various medical treatments for migraines, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and narcolepsy. She treated with internists, a licensed clinical social worker, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist.[2] Her internist diagnosed her with "chronic fatigue syndrome, depressive disorder, insomnia, malaise and fatigue, [and] narcolepsy." Ms. K reported falling asleep four times or more per day, despite getting a full night's sleep. She would even fall asleep while standing up. She was unable to maintain employment.

         Ms. K filed a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied her claim determining that Ms. K has no physical or mental impairments that she considered severe at Step 2 of the sequential evaluation. The Appeals Council affirmed the decision and Ms. K appealed to this Court.


         A district court's role in reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. "The 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 Sews., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981). The Supreme Court has defined substantial evidence as "more than a mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

         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 Secretary, not the courts." Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991).

         "The First Circuit has stated that courts should ensure 'a just outcome' in Social Security disability claims." Santa v. Astrue, 924 F.Supp.2d 386, 391 (D.R.I. 2013) (quoting Pelletier v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 525 F.2d 158, 161 (1st Cir. 1975)). "[T]he Social Security Act is to be construed liberally to effectuate its general purpose of easing the insecurity of life." Rodriguez v. Celebrezze, 349 F.2d 494, 496 (1st Cir. 1965); see also Cohen v. Sec'y of Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 964 F.2d 524, 531 (6th Cir. 1992) ("[I]t is well to bear in mind that '[t]he Social Security Act is a remedial statute which must be "liberally applied."'" (second alteration in original) (quoting Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 29 (2d Cir. 1979))); Slessinger v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 835 F.2d 937, 943 (1st Cir. 1987) ("[T]he Social Security Act should be construed liberally in order to further its remedial purposes." (citing Cunningham v. Harris, 658 F.2d 239, 243 (4th Cir.1981))). The Cunningham court explained that

[W]e are also bound to interpret the Social Security Act as a program of social insurance on which people can rely to provide for themselves and their dependents. Claimants are the beneficiaries of insured wage earners, not recipients of government gratuities, and are entitled to a broad construction of the Act. In practical terms, when a Social Security Act provision can be reasonably interpreted in favor of one seeking benefits, it should be so construed.

658 F.2d at 243 (citations omitted).


         Ms. K first asserts that the ALJ erred by "failing to find that any of [Ms. K's] medically detei'minable impairments were 'severe' as that term is used at Step 2 of the Sequential Evaluation." ECF No. 11-1 at 1. She details that her narcolepsy was a medically determinable impairment and that her anxiety and depression were severe impairments. Second, she asserts that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's findings regarding the weight assigned to the opinion evidence. Notably, the ALJ rejected all of the examining source opinions, including that of the ...

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