Coren v. Colvin
Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton: ENDORSED ORDER entered. MEMORANDUM AND ORDER In accordance with the foregoing,1) plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings for a reversal of the Commissioners decision (Docket No. 15) is DENIED and 2) defendants motion for an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner (Docket No. 22) is ALLOWED. So ordered.(Caruso, Stephanie)
United States District Court
District of Massachusetts
Carolyn W. Colvin,
Civil Action No.
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
Plaintiff Doris Coren (“Coren” or “plaintiff”) seeks
judicial review of the denial of her application for disability
benefits by defendant, Carolyn W. Colvin (“the Commissioner”),
in her official capacity as Commissioner of the Social Security
Pending before the Court are
1) plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings to reverse
the Commissioner’s decision and 2) defendant’s motion for an
order affirming her decision.
For the reasons that follow,
plaintiff’s motion to reverse the Commissioner will be denied
and the Commissioner’s motion to affirm will be allowed.
Employment History and Alleged Disability
Doris Coren was born on July 7, 1965.
She has a tenth or
eleventh grade education, has three adult children and is
She has been unemployed for 15 years and her main
source of income is government assistance.
Coren filed an
application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title
XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., in
April, 2012, alleging that she is disabled because of peripheral
neuropathy, lower back pain, alcohol abuse disorder,
hypertension, obesity, major depressive disorder, intellectual
disorder and anxiety disorder.
Coren’s initial application for disability benefits was
denied in July, 2012, and, upon reconsideration, was denied
again in November, 2012.
She filed a request for a hearing and
review of the SSA’s decision in December, 2012.
was held in November, 2013, before Administrative Law Judge
Henry Hogan (“the ALJ”).
In January, 2014, the ALJ found Coren
to be not disabled.
In denying Coren disability benefits, the ALJ applied the
five-step test provided in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) and, with
respect to the fifth step, found that Coren was not entitled to
The ALJ relied upon the testimony before
ALJ must determine whether: 1) the claimant is engaged in
“substantial gainful activity”, 2) the claimant has a severe
physical or mental impairment, 3) that impairment is equivalent
to an impairment enumerated in the regulations, 4) the
claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) meets the
requirements of her previous work and 5) there are jobs that
him during the disability hearing as well as several exhibits
entered into the record which contain medical reports from
doctors and health professionals.
The ALJ deemed that Coren was not engaged in substantial
gainful activity but was severely impaired as a result of her
peripheral neuropathy, lower back pain, alcohol abuse disorder,
major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and unspecified
He then found, at step three of the
analysis, that her impairments did not meet or equal the
severity of those enumerated in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. § 404
Subpart P (“§ 404 Impairments”).
At step four, the ALJ concluded that Coren had a residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) of “light work” with additional
restrictions of 1) occasionally climbing stairs or ramps,
2) occasionally stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling and
3) occasionally using her right arm for “fine manipulation” and
4) performing only one to two-step tasks.
The ALJ also noted
that she did not have any past work experience to which she
Finally, to determine if there were jobs in the general
economy that Coren could hold, the ALJ relied upon the testimony
would be appropriate for the claimant given her RFC, age,
education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)(v).
of vocational expert Dr. Robert Laskey (“Dr. Laskey”).
Dr. Lasky identified three occupations suitable for her: a
garment sorter (2,400 jobs in Massachusetts), a laundry worker
(9,000 jobs in Massachusetts) and a shipping and receiving
weigher (360 jobs in Massachusetts).
Citing Dr. Lasky’s
testimony, the ALJ concluded that Coren was not disabled because
there were several kinds of jobs in the economy that she could
Coren timely appealed the ALJ’s decision but it was upheld
in February, 2015, by the Appeals Council.
She then filed her
complaint in this Court in September, 2015, alleging that the
ALJ failed to consider pertinent evidence and did not perform
the required analyses.
The Parties’ Motions
A. Legal Standard
To obtain benefits under Section 1602 of the Social
Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 1381a, an individual must
demonstrate that she is unable
to engage in any substantial gainful activity by
reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A).
The impairment must
be of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to
continue her previous work but also unable to engage in other
kinds of substantial work that exist in the national economy
fitting her age, education and work experience. Deblois v. Sec’y
of Health & Human Servs., 686 F.2d 76, 79 (1st Cir. 1982).
The Act gives federal district courts the power to affirm,
modify or reverse the ALJ’s decision or to remand the case for a
rehearing. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Review under § 405(g), however,
is not de novo. See Lizotte v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs.,
654 F.2d 127, 128 (1st Cir. 1981).
The Act provides that the
findings of the Commissioner are conclusive so long as 1) they
are “supported by substantial evidence” and 2) the Commissioner
has applied the correct legal standard. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Seavey v. Barhart, 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001).
criteria are satisfied, the Court must uphold the Commissioner’s
decision even if the record could justify a different
conclusion. Evangelista v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 826
F.2d 136, 144 (1st Cir. 1987).
Substantial evidence means
evidence “reasonably sufficient” to support the ALJ’s
conclusion. See Doyle v. Paul Revere Life Ins. Co., 144 F.3d
181, 184 (1st Cir. 1998).
Coren claims that the ALJ erred in finding her not disabled
because he 1) gave incorrect weight to the opinions of certain
doctors, 2) followed the wrong procedure to determine if
alcoholism was pertinent to plaintiff’s disability and 3) failed
to consider whether her learning disorder met or equaled a
listed § 404 Impairment.
The Weight of Expert Opinions in the Record
Plaintiff avers that the ALJ 1) erred in weighing the
medical opinions in the record and 2) substituted his own
judgment for purportedly “uncontroverted” medical opinion.
is so, she says, because the ALJ gave little weight to opinion
evidence from Dr. Barbara Trockman, a state agency medical
consultant, Dr. Lena Mathews, Coren’s primary care provider for
a short period of time and Dr. Jasper Lawson, a clinical
psychologist and consultative examiner while, on the other hand,
crediting the opinion of Dr. Carol McKenna, a state
The Commissioner denies that
characterization and maintains that the ALJ appropriately
weighed all the evidence in the record and supported his
conclusions with substantial information from the record.
To determine whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ
must weigh several, sometimes conflicting, medical opinions. See
Rodriguez v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222
(1st Cir. 1981).
In weighing such opinions, the ALJ can
consider whether they are consistent with the “record as a
whole”. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(4).
The ALJ found that reports of Drs. Trockman, Mathews and
Lawson conflicted with the record as a whole, including reports
detailing Coren’s daily activities, her conservative medical
treatment regimen, history of poor compliance with doctors’
recommendations and an absence of extensive hospitalizations.
Conversely, because Dr. McKenna’s assessment was consistent with
the record, the ALJ properly credited it. See id.
Plaintiff’s assertion that the ALJ substituted his own
judgment for medical evidence is unpersuasive.
conclusions must be accepted so long as there is “substantial
evidence” in the record to support those conclusions. See
Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 2
(1st Cir. 1987).
In light of evidence showing that Coren
1) intermittently sought treatment, 2) poorly complied with her
doctor’s instructions, 3) has not been hospitalized for serious
conditions and 4) is able to live outside of a highly supportive
living environment, perform chores around the house, prepare
simple meals, run errands and spend time with others, this Court
concludes that there is substantial evidence in the record to
support the ALJ’s conclusions.
Thus, the ALJ’s decision as to
defendant’s disability will be affirmed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any
fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be
conclusive . . . .”).
Procedure in Determining Applicability of Alcohol
Second, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to consider
whether her alcohol abuse was “material” to her disability.
Plaintiff properly notes that the ALJ must first determine
that she is disabled before engaging in a “materiality,” i.e.
causal, analysis of her alcohol abuse. See 20 C.F.R.
Here, however, the ALJ found plaintiff to be not
disabled based upon the five-step analysis.
That finding ended
the inquiry and thus no materiality analysis was necessary.
Faster v. Barnhart, 324 F.3d 981, 986 (8th Cir. 2003).
Consideration of Evidence in Respect to
Impairment Listing 12.05 (Mental Impairments)
At step three of the analysis, the ALJ must determine
whether a claimant has an impairment that is the same or
equivalent to one or more of the § 404 Impairments. 20 C.F.R.
If the claimant has such an impairment,
the claimant is deemed disabled. Id.
Here, the ALJ concluded that Coren’s impairments were not
equivalent to any of the § 404 Impairments enumerated under
listings 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related
disorders) or 12.09 (substance addiction disorders).
did not determine, however, whether Coren’s alleged disabilities
matched those in listing 12.05 (intellectual disabilities) even
though she has low intellectual functioning.
maintains that omission is a reversible error.
In order to be disabled under listing 12.05, the claimant
must meet three criteria: 1) significant sub-average
intellectual functioning, 2) significant deficits in current
adaptive functioning and 3) manifestation of the disorder before
age 22. § 404 Impairments 12.00H(1).
Although, as defendant
concedes, plaintiff meets the first and third elements of
listing 12.05, Coren has not demonstrated significant
deficiencies in adaptive functioning and therefore she is not
disabled under listing 12.05.
To determine if a claimant has a deficiency in adaptive
functioning, the same analysis is used for listing 12.05 as for
listings 12.04 and 12.06. Compare § 404 Impairments 12.04(B)(1)(4) and § 404 Impairments 12.06(B)(1)-(4), with § 404
Here, the ALJ assessed plaintiff’s adaptive functioning for
listings 12.04 and 12.06 based on substantial evidence in the
Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that his
decision would have been different if had also assessed her
functioning using the criteria provided in 12.05. See id.; see
also Rivera v. Barnhart, No. 04-30131, 2005 WL 670538, at *5 (D.
Mass. Mar. 14, 2005)(holding that an omission of findings to a
specific listing is not fatal for an ALJ decision as long there
is sufficient evidence that the listing was not met).
Plaintiff also claims that the ALJ’s decision was based
upon insufficient evidence because he did not adequately develop
the record to determine if she had significant deficits in
Indeed, while the ALJ’s investigatory
role requires him to develop the record, Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S.
103, 110-111 (2000), he did so in this case.
For example, he
credited evidence that Coren is able to live independently, do
laundry, clean, handle finances, attend medical appointments and
spend time with her family and friends.
Although there might be
additional evidence to support plaintiff’s contentions, the
ALJ’s decision must be affirmed if it is supported by
substantial evidence. Ward v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652,
655 (1st Cir. 2000).
Here, the Court concludes that there is
substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s determination with
respect to plaintiff’s adaptive functioning.
In accordance with the foregoing,
plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings for a
reversal of the Commissioner’s decision (Docket
No. 15) is DENIED and
defendant’s motion for an order affirming the decision
of the Commissioner (Docket No. 22) is ALLOWED.
/s/ Nathaniel M. Gorton
Nathaniel M. Gorton
United States District Judge
Dated May 24, 2017
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