Hafford v. US Social Security Administration
///ORDER granting 8 Motion to Reverse Decision of Commissioner; denying 10 Motion to Affirm Decision of Commissioner. So Ordered by Judge Paul J. Barbadoro.(vln)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
Civil No. 15-cv-426-PB
Opinion No. 2017 DNH 060
US Social Security Administration,
Acting Commissioner, Nancy A. Berryhill
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Nicole Hafford is a twenty-seven year old woman who
previously worked as a cashier and a server.
the Social Security Administration’s denial of her claim for
disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).
The Acting Social
Security Commissioner seeks to have the ruling affirmed.
In accordance with Local Rule 9.1, the parties have
submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts (Doc. No. 11).
Because that joint statement is part of the court’s record, I do
not recount it here.
Instead, I discuss facts relevant to the
disposition of this matter as necessary below.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), I have the authority to
review the administrative record and the pleadings submitted by
the parties, and to enter judgment affirming, modifying, or
reversing the final decision of the Commissioner.
is limited, however, “to determining whether the [Administrative
Law Judge] used the proper legal standards and found facts
[based] upon the proper quantum of evidence.”
Ward v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000).
I defer to the
Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ’s) findings of fact, so long as
those findings are supported by substantial evidence.
Substantial evidence exists “if a reasonable mind, reviewing the
evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate
to support his conclusion.”
Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y of Health &
Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (per curiam)
(quoting Rodriguez v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d
218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)).
If the substantial evidence standard is met, the ALJ’s
factual findings are conclusive, even where the record “arguably
could support a different conclusion.”
Id. at 770.
are not conclusive, however, if the ALJ derived his findings by
“ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters
entrusted to experts.”
Cir. 1999) (per curiam).
Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st
The ALJ is responsible for determining
issues of credibility and for drawing inferences from evidence
in the record.
Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769.
It is the role
of the ALJ, not the court, to resolve conflicts in the evidence.
Hafford applied for DIB in November 2012, claiming
disability as of April 2010.
The ALJ held a hearing in April
2014, at which Hafford and her brother testified.
represented Hafford at the hearing.
In a subsequent written
decision, the ALJ found that Hafford was not disabled.
In the decision, the ALJ used the five-step sequential
process outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) to evaluate
At the first step, the ALJ determined that
Hafford had not engaged in substantial gainful employment from
her alleged onset date through her date last insured.
Continuing to step two, the ALJ found a number of severe
impairments: degenerative disc disease, knee pain, history of
seizure disorder, obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, and anxiety
The ALJ concluded at step three that Hafford’s
impairments did not meet or constitute the medical equivalent of
any listed impairments.
Prior to step four, the ALJ assessed
Hafford’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”).
had no past relevant work, the ALJ proceeded past step four and
decided at step five that a significant number of jobs existed
in the national economy that Hafford could perform.
Accordingly, the ALJ found that Hafford was not disabled.
In August 2014, the Appeals Council declined to review the
ALJ’s decision, meaning the decision constitutes the final
decision of the Commissioner.
The matter is now ripe for
Hafford presents two primary arguments for remand: (1) the
ALJ committed error when calculating her RFC, and (2) the ALJ
impermissibly employed the Medical-Vocational Guidelines at step
five, instead of seeking the guidance of a vocational expert.
find Hafford’s first argument persuasive and therefore do not
address the second.
A claimant’s RFC is “the most [the claimant] can still do
despite [her] limitations.”
20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1).
appeal, I determine whether the assigned RFC is free of legal
error and supported by substantial evidence.
See Nguyen, 172
F.3d at 35.
Here, the ALJ found an RFC with both exertional and nonexertional limitations.
With respect to Hafford’s exertional
ability, the ALJ concluded that Hafford could “perform light
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b).”1
Tr. at 14.
“Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time
with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10
pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job
is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or
standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some
pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls.” § 404.1567(b).
incorporated a number of other limitations into Hafford’s RFC:
[Hafford] cannot work around unprotected height or
moving machinery; work cannot require her to drive;
she is able to understand, recall and carry out short
and simple instructions, maintain concentration and
attention, maintain attendance and routine and persist
to task to complete a normal eight-hour workday day
and forty-hour work week without undue interruptions
from psychologically based symptoms, can adapt to
routine but simple changes, but would need a work
environment that is somewhat socially isolated.
Tr. at 14.
In her RFC analysis, the ALJ recounted the hearing
testimony and objective evidence on record.
The ALJ first noted
Hafford’s testimony concerning a history of seizures and
unrelieved back pain, and her brother’s testimony as to
Hafford’s anxiety and inability to maintain focus.
Tr. at 15.
Turning to the objective evidence, the ALJ found that the
“evidence provides some support to [Hafford’s] allegations” but
“does not support the elevated level of impairment alleged.”
Tr. at 15.
She noted that Hafford had a “long history of
epilepsy, confirmed by an April 2010” diagnostic test, but had
not experienced a grand mal seizure since 2008 and had responded
well to treatment in subsequent years.
Tr. at 15–16.
likewise recognized Hafford’s “history of severe obstructive
Tr. at 16.
Although treatment controlled
Hafford’s apnea symptoms, the ALJ noted that Hafford had not
complied with her apnea treatment in the past.
Tr. at 16.
ALJ last observed that physical examinations had generally not
corroborated Hafford’s claims of back and knee pain.
Tr. at 16.
The ALJ also discussed several medical opinions concerning
Hafford’s functional capacity.
Three opinions dealt primarily
with Hafford’s physical limitations.
David Riss, M.D.,
Hafford’s treating physician, opined that Hafford could
occasionally lift less than ten pounds and had several
pronounced limitations in sitting, standing, and postural
Tr. at 461–64.
The ALJ found Dr. Riss’ opinion to
be unpersuasive and declined to give it controlling weight.
In contrast, the ALJ gave some weight to the opinion of
Peter Loeser, M.D.
Tr. at 16.
Dr. Loeser performed a physical
examination of Hafford — procured by the state agency — and
concluded that Hafford’s impairments would have, at most, “no
significant effect on functional capacity.”
Tr. at 423–24.
ALJ last considered the opinion of reviewing, agency source
Burton Nault, M.D.
Tr. at 17.
Dr. Nault determined that
Hafford could perform “light work” with some postural and
See Tr. at 55–56.
The ALJ afforded
substantial weight to Dr. Nault’s opinion, and the RFC
formulated by the ALJ reflected the exertional level, and some
of the limitations, identified by Dr. Nault.
Tr. at 17–18.
Two opinions dealt primarily with Hafford’s mental
Cheryl Bildner, Ph.D., performed a mental
examination of Hafford in March 2013 at the request of the state
Dr. Bildner began her written evaluation by describing
Hafford’s presentation and medical history.
Tr. at 414–15.
Bildner then offered several opinions relating to Hafford’s
Hafford could “sustain appropriate
interaction and communication in low stress and small-group
settings,” but “becomes overly anxious” in other settings.
She could also “sustain attention . . . for brief
periods of time.”
Tr. at 417.
“Due to reported fatigue, lack
of motivation and diminished threshold for anxiety,” however,
Hafford could not “sustain task completion for prolonged
Tr. at 417.
Nor was she able to “persist at
Tr. at 417.
Most pertinent for this case,
Dr. Bildner wrote that Hafford “will become overwhelmed with
chronic and persistent stress” in the workplace and “is able to
maintain attendance for a part-time position.”
Tr. at 417.
ALJ mentioned several of Dr. Bildner’s findings at step three
and in determining Hafford’s RFC, Tr. at 13–14, 17, but did not
mention the part-time-work limitation or explicitly assign
weight to Dr. Bildner’s opinion.
The ALJ did assign substantial weight to the opinion of
reviewing, agency source Laura Landerman, Ph.D., because her
opinion was not “inconsistent with the medical evidence as a
Tr. at 17.
Dr. Landerman ultimately concluded that
Hafford could maintain full-time employment, though she
identified several limitations:
Hafford could follow “short and
simple instructions,” endure “routine and simple changes,” and
had to have a semi-socially-isolated workstation with a
supervisor who was not “overly harsh or critical.”
Tr. at 57–
Dr. Landerman placed “primary weight” on Dr. Bildner’s
Tr. at 59.
She did not, however, identify Dr.
Bildner’s part-time-work limitation as a point of conflict.
ALJ incorporated most of Dr. Landerman’s findings into the RFC.
Hafford claims the ALJ made several errors in calculating
First, she argues that the ALJ ignored Dr. Bildner’s
limitation to part-time work and failed to explain why she did
not include a part-time limitation in Hafford’s RFC.
No. 8 at 4–5, 8; Doc. No. 13 at 3.
Indeed, the ALJ found that
Hafford could adequately “complete a normal eight-hour workday
day and forty-hour work week.”
Tr. at 14.
Failing to address
the limitation was not harmless error, according to Hafford,
because inclusion would have compelled a finding of disability.
See Doc. No. 8 at 8.
I find this argument persuasive and do not
address her other RFC arguments.
The ALJ must assess a claimant’s RFC “based on all of the
relevant medical and other evidence.”
§ 404.1545(a)(3); see
also Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35 (stating an ALJ may not ignore
Specifically, the ALJ must evaluate every medical
opinion in the case record and “explain in the decision the
weight given to the opinions of . . . treating sources,
nontreating sources, and other nonexamining sources.”
404.1527(c), (e)(2)(ii) (2016) (since amended).
The need to
address opinion evidence is most pronounced where the evidence
conflicts with the ALJ’s determination.
Accordingly, “[i]f the
RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion from a medical source,
the adjudicator must explain why the opinion was not adopted.”
SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (July 2, 1996).
“[a]lthough an ALJ is free to independently evaluate the weight
of a particular medical opinion in the record that supports a
claimant’s position, an ALJ is not free to simply ignore it.”
Grenier v. Colvin, 2015 DNH 133, 6.
In this case, ALJ was required to address Dr. Bildner’s
opinion that Hafford “is able to maintain attendance for a parttime position.”
Tr. at 417.
constitutes reversible error.
The ALJ’s failure to do so
The limitation plainly conflicts
with the RFC found by the ALJ, and if the limitation were
incorporated into the RFC, it would produce a finding of
disability in this case.
See Huse v. Colvin, 2014 DNH 059, 4;
Mitchell v. Astrue, 2012 DNH 054, 15–16.
limitation was not conclusory, but expressed in the context of
Hafford’s related impairments.
Dr. Bildner found that Hafford
was “unable to sustain task completion for prolonged periods of
time” due to her reported symptoms, and could not “persist at
Tr. at 417.
And even though Hafford could
“tolerate minor stressors in” the workplace, she would “become
overwhelmed with chronic and persistent stress.”
Tr. at 417.
Although the ALJ identified and discussed parts of Dr.
Bildner’s opinion at step three and in formulating the RFC, the
ALJ did not mention the part-time-work limitation and did not
provide an explanation for excluding that limitation from the
Tr. at 13–14, 17.
Nor did the ALJ explicitly note the
weight given to Dr. Bildner’s opinion.
Bildner’s limitation was not cumulative of other evidence in the
record that the ALJ did address.2
F.Supp.2d 3, 13 (D.N.H. 2000).
See Lord v. Apfel, 114
Thus, remand is appropriate.
See Charron v. Astrue, 2013 DNH 156, 13–14, 17; Morse v. US Soc.
Sec. Admin., Com’r, No. 12-CV-446-PB, 2013 WL 5776148, at *8
(D.N.H. Oct. 25, 2013).
The Acting Commissioner advances several arguments to save
the ALJ’s decision.
None is persuasive.
First, the Acting
Commissioner contends that “Dr. Bildner never said that
[Hafford] was only limited to part-time work.”
Doc. No. 10-1 at
The statement could merely have been a reference to
Hafford’s history of part-time work.
The Acting Commissioner
The ALJ noted that Hafford’s brother “opined that [Hafford]
could not complete a forty hour work week.” Tr. at 15. The
opinions of a claimant’s family member and a mental health
specialist are sufficiently distinct that mention of the former
does not excuse failing to address the latter.
goes on to argue that Dr. Landerman’s reviewing opinion supports
this interpretation of Dr. Bildner’s opinion.
Landerman gave “primary weight” to Dr. Bildner’s opinion, but
did not identify the part-time statement as a conflicting
This argument fails.
To start, a statement of limited
ability in this context is generally exclusive of more robust
More fundamentally, it is the responsibility of the
ALJ to resolve conflicts in the evidence.
F.2d at 769.
Irlanda Ortiz, 955
Where a medical source opinion can be reasonably
read to include the kind of limitation involved here, the ALJ is
obliged to explain the meaning of the opinion or address it as a
Otherwise, a court would not be able to review the
reasoning or evidence underlying the ALJ’s decision.
v. Astrue, 781 F. Supp. 2d 27, 35 (D.N.H. 2011).
The Acting Commissioner next argues that the ALJ did not
need to expressly evaluate Dr. Bildner’s opinion because Dr.
Landerman relied on, and adequately evaluated, Dr. Bildner’s
See Doc. No. 10-1 at 7.
I reject this argument
because it is based on a mistaken premise.
See Grenier, 2015
DNH 133, 9–11 (rejecting a similar argument).
Landerman gave “primary weight” to Dr. Bildner’s opinion, she
did not identify or discuss her part-time-work limitation.
Because Dr. Landerman did not explicitly recognize the
tension between her opinion and Dr. Bildner’s, let alone resolve
that tension on the record, I cannot conclude that Dr. Landerman
discharged the ALJ’s duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence.
If anything, placing weight on Dr. Bildner’s opinion under these
circumstances “only accentuated the need” for the ALJ to address
the part-time-work limitation.
Grenier, 2015 DNH 133, 10 n.2.3
Last, the Acting Commissioner maintains that the ALJ’s
failure to evaluate Dr. Bildner’s opinion amounts only to
See Doc. No. 10-1 at 8.
Bildner was one of only two mental health specialists cited by
the ALJ, and adoption of Dr. Bildner’s part-time-work limitation
would have required a finding of disability.
See Taylor v.
Astrue, 899 F. Supp. 2d 83, 90 (D. Mass. 2012).
In this case,
it remained the ALJ’s obligation to explicitly address the
conflict in the evidence.4
The Acting Commissioner cites a number of cases in support of
her argument. See Doc. No. 10-1 at 7–8. These cases do not
compel a different result. Cf., e.g., Martel v. U.S. Soc. Sec.
Admin., Com’r, 2013 DNH 157, 22–23, 28–29 (finding no error
where ALJ explicitly and supportably discounted opinions
containing disputed limitation).
Although I do not address the ALJ’s reliance on the MedicalVocational Guidelines at step five, I repeat the First Circuit’s
guidance “that an ALJ typically should err on the side of taking
vocational evidence when [a nonexertional] limitation is present
in order to avoid needless agency rehearings.” Ortiz v. Sec’y
of Health & Human Servs., 890 F.2d 520, 528 (1st Cir. 1989) (per
I grant Hafford’s motion to reverse the Commissioner’s
decision (Doc. No. 8) and deny the Acting Commissioner’s motion
to affirm her decision (Doc. No. 10).
Pursuant to sentence four
of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), I remand the case to the Social Security
Administration for further proceedings consistent with this
United States District Judge
March 27, 2017
Penelope E. Gronbeck, Esq.
Robert J. Rabuck, Esq.
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