Martin v. US Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner
///ORDER denying 8 Motion to Reverse Decision of Commissioner; granting 11 Motion to Affirm Decision of Commissioner. Clerk shall enter judgment and close the case. So Ordered by Judge Landya B. McCafferty.(gla)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
Civil No. 16-cv-464-LM
Opinion No. 2018 DNH 028
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security1
O R D E R
Richard Martin seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) & 1383(c)(3), of the decision of the Acting
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying his
application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental
Martin moves to reverse the Acting
Commissioner’s decision, contending that the Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) erred in improperly evaluating and weighing the
testimony of the state agency physician, by interpreting raw
medical data, and by ignoring medical evidence in the record
relating to manipulative limitations.
For the reasons that
follow, the decision of the Acting Commissioner is affirmed.
Nancy A. Berryhill became Acting Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration on January 23, 2017, replacing Carolyn
W. Colvin. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing the final decision of the Acting Commissioner
in a social security case, the court “is limited to determining
whether the ALJ deployed the proper legal standards and found
facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.”
Nguyen v. Chater,
172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999); accord Seavey v. Barnhart, 276
F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001).
The court defers to the ALJ’s
factual findings as long as they are supported by substantial
§ 405(g); see also Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 34
(1st Cir. 2016).
“Substantial evidence is more than a
It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Condo. Ass’n v. Sec’y Dep’t of Housing & Urban Dev., 620 F.3d
62, 66 (1st Cir. 2010).
On June 13, 2013, Richard Martin applied for disability
benefits and supplemental security income, claiming a disability
that began on March 15, 2013, when he was in a car accident.
Martin was 53 years old at the time of his application.
previously worked in landscape construction, cooking and running
A detailed statement of the facts can be found in the
parties’ Joint Statement of Material Facts (doc. no. 13).
a kitchen, working for a moving company, and working as a
cashier and stocker.
On the date of Martin’s car accident, he was taken to
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (“DHMC”) for special care by
the trauma service for spinal fractures and upper extremity
While at DHMC, it was determined that Martin had
suffered a facial fracture and a displaced fracture through his
He was also diagnosed with central disc protrusions,
degenerative disc disease, and soft tissue swelling.
discharged from DHMC on March 18, 2013, and, on March 26, 2013,
he underwent an outpatient surgical procedure to repair his
In the months following the accident, Martin sought
treatment for his spinal cord injury and upper extremity
Treatment notes and physical therapy evaluations
throughout 2013, 2014, and into early 2015 showed that Martin
consistently made progress in his recovery from his injuries,
although he continued to complain of pain, primarily in his
In April 2014, Martin also developed a left knee ailment,
which was eventually diagnosed as a torn meniscus.3
On July 17,
It appears that Martin’s knee injury, for which he first
sought treatment more than a year after his accident, was
unrelated to the accident.
2014, he underwent a left knee arthroscopy.
By October 2014,
Martin reported significant improvement in his knee, and did not
seek further treatment for the injury.
On April 6, 2015, a hearing before an ALJ was held on
Martin’s application for benefits.
Martin was represented by an
attorney and testified at the hearing.
On June 26, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision.
The ALJ found that Martin had severe impairments due to central
cord syndrome, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine,
and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.
The ALJ also
discussed numerous impairments that were medically determinable,
but not severe within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
He found that Martin’s impairments did not meet or equal a
The ALJ concluded that Martin had the
residual functional capacity to do light work under 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1567(b) & 416.967(b),4 except that he was limited to
occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, kneeling,
crouching and crawling.
The ALJ also concluded that Martin
Because the pertinent regulations governing disability
insurance benefits at 20 C.F.R. Part 404 are the same as the
pertinent regulations governing supplemental security income at
20 C.F.R. Part 416, the court will cite only Part 404
regulations. See Reagan v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 877
F.2d 123, 124 (1st Cir. 1989).
could frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, and stoop, and
that he should avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards.
With that evaluation, the ALJ found that Martin could do
his past relevant work as a cashier/checker and stocker.
Therefore, the ALJ found that Martin was not disabled within the
meaning of the Act.
The Appeals Council denied Martin’s request
for review, making the ALJ’s decision the Acting Commissioner’s
In support of his motion to reverse the Acting
Commissioner’s decision, Martin contends that the ALJ erred by
1) improperly evaluating and weighing the testimony of the state
agency physician, 2) interpreting raw medical data, and 3)
ignoring medical evidence in the record relating to manipulative
The Acting Commissioner moves to affirm.
An individual seeking social security income and/or
disability insurance benefits is disabled under the Social
Security Act if he or 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.”
U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) & 1382c(a)(3)(A).
In determining whether
a claimant is disabled for purposes of social security benefits,
the ALJ follows a five-step sequential analysis.
The claimant bears the burden through the first
four steps of proving that her impairments preclude him from
Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir.
At the fourth step of the sequential analysis, the ALJ
assesses the claimant’s residual functional capacity, which is a
determination of the most a person can do in a work setting
despite her limitations caused by impairments, see 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1545(a)(1), and his past relevant work, see id. at
If the claimant can perform his past
relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not
See id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).
The ALJ’s residual
functional capacity assessment is reviewed to determine whether
it is supported by substantial evidence.
Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y
of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991).
Weight Given to State Agency Physician’s Opinion
Martin contends that the ALJ erred in giving great weight
to the opinion of the state agency physician, Dr. Hugh Fairley,
that Martin would be capable of performing light work with
certain limitations as of March 14, 2014.
Fairley, who issued his opinion on January 24, 2014, stated that
Martin was “considered presently disabled” as of the date of his
Admin. Rec. at 67.
Dr. Fairley opined, however, that
based on Martin’s medical records, which showed consistent
improvement in functionality since his accident, Martin would be
able to perform light work with certain limitations as of March
Martin criticizes the ALJ’s reliance on Dr. Fairley’s
opinion for several reasons.
He argues that 1) the ALJ failed
to adequately explain Dr. Fairley’s opinion that Martin should
be considered disabled as of January 24, 2014, but yet was still
capable of performing light work; 2) the ALJ failed to consider
medical records post-dating Dr. Fairley’s opinion showing that
Martin’s condition had not improved as Dr. Fairley expected; and
3) Martin developed new conditions after Dr. Fairley’s opinion
that supported a finding of disability.5
An ALJ is required to consider the medical opinions along
with all other relevant evidence in a claimant's record.
C.F.R. § 404.1527(b).
“Medical opinions are statements from
Martin also notes that the ALJ gave Dr. Fairley’s opinion
great weight while giving the opinion of Martin’s treating
physician, Dr. Earl Freeman, little weight. The ALJ addressed
Dr. Freeman’s opinion and explained that he gave it little
weight because it was not supported by the objective medical
evidence, Dr. Freeman’s own treatment notes, or Martin’s daily
activities. Martin fails to explain how the ALJ erred in that
determination, and the court need not address the issue further.
acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the
nature and severity of [the claimant’s] impairment(s), including
[the claimant’s] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the
claimant] can still do despite impairment(s), and [the
claimant’s] physical or mental restrictions.”
Medical opinions are evaluated based on the nature of the
medical source’s relationship with the claimant, the consistency
of the opinion with the other record evidence, the medical
source's specialty, and other factors that support or detract
from the opinion.
Explanation of Dr. Fairley’s Opinion
This case presents an unusual set of circumstances.
claimant is disabled if he is unable to engage in any
substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable
impairment “which has lasted or can be expected to last for a
continuous period of not less than 12 months.”
& 1382c(a)(3)(A) (emphasis added).
Here, the ALJ gave great
weight to Dr. Fairley’s opinion that Martin was disabled as of
the date of the opinion, January 24, 2014, but that Martin’s
medical records and prognosis showed that he would be capable of
light work with certain limitations and would not be disabled as
of March 14, 2014, less than 12 months from the onset date of
Martin asserts that the “ALJ failed to articulate how he
determined [Martin] improved and failed to reconcile how he
determined [Martin] could perform light work for the time period
Dr. Fairley found [Martin] disabled.”
Doc. no. 8-1 at 6.
argument, however, appears to misconstrue Dr. Fairley’s opinion
as stating both that Martin should be considered disabled as of
January 24, 2014, but was capable of performing light work with
certain limitations as of that date.
He faults the ALJ for
failing to adequately explain his reasons for giving the opinion
Dr. Fairley, however, did not opine that Martin was capable
of performing light work with certain limitations as of January
Instead, Dr. Fairley opined just the opposite—that
Martin was disabled as of January 24, 2014, and therefore was
not capable of performing light work on that date.
The crux of
Dr. Fairley’s opinion was that based on Martin’s medical records
as of January 24, 2014, which showed consistent progress in
Martin’s recovery since his accident, Martin would be capable of
light work with certain limitations as of March 14, 2014.
Therefore, the ALJ did not find, and therefore was not
required to explain, why Martin could perform light work for the
entirety of the 12-month period after Martin’s accident.
Medical Records Showing Lack of Improvement
Martin contends that the ALJ failed to address the
subsequent medical evidence in the record that showed that
Martin had not improved as Dr. Fairley had predicted.
result, he argues, Dr. Fairley’s opinion is not substantial
evidence to support the ALJ’s decision.
The opinion of a reviewing consultant based on a
“significantly incomplete record” cannot provide substantial
evidence to support an ALJ’s residual functional capacity
finding, and therefore cannot bear “any significant weight.”
Alcantara v. Astrue, 257 F. App’x 333, 334 (1st Cir. 2007); see
Padilla v. Barnhart, 186 F. App’x 19, 21 (1st Cir. 2006).
record is not ‘significantly incomplete,’ however, based merely
on the fact that time has passed since the consultant’s review
and an incidental update in the claimant’s condition has since
Giandomenico v. U.S. Soc. Sec. Admin., Acting
Comm’r, No. 16-cv-506-PB, 2017 WL 5484657, at *4 (D.N.H. Nov.
15, 2017); see Diggett v. Berryhill, No. 16–233–M, 2017 WL
3705072, at *1 (D.R.I. Aug. 25, 2017).
“Rather, the change must
Giandomenico, 2017 WL 5484657, at *4 (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted).
Thus, an ALJ may rely on
a consultant’s outdated opinion if he determines that the
evidence post-dating the opinion did not materially change the
record on which it was based.
See Alcantara, 257 F. App’x at
“The record remains materially unchanged where the new
evidence either reveals no greater limitations or is arguably
consistent with the consultant’s assessment.”
2017 WL 5484657, at *4.
Martin contends that medical evidence in the record after
Dr. Fairley issued his opinion showed that Martin continued to
be disabled, and that the ALJ failed to address this evidence.
In support, Martin points to medical records relating primarily
to his left knee and his spinal injury.
Martin first points to April 7, 2014 treatment notes
written by Nurse Kelly DeFeo of Paincare Centers.
that the ALJ failed to address the notes, which showed that
Martin was complaining of pain in his neck and knee, as well as
The ALJ, however, did address Nurse DeFeo’s April 7
treatment notes, discussing Martin’s complaints at the
appointment, the results of Nurse DeFeo’s examination, and
Martin’s follow-up care.
See Admin. Rec. at 21.
The ALJ explained why this and other evidence that postdated Dr. Fairley’s opinion did not undermine the opinion.
short, while the April 7th treatment notes may indicate that
Martin still experienced pain as of that date, they do not show
resulting functional limitations that would materially change
Dr. Fairley’s opinion.
See Bowden v. Astrue, No. CA 11-84 DLM,
2012 WL 1999469, at *7 (D.R.I. June 4, 2012) (discussing how
claimant’s various diagnoses and notes from providers postdating state agency physician’s opinion as to claimant’s
limitations did not undermine the opinion because the claimant
“has identified no functional limitations resulting therefrom”);
Carson v. Barnhart, 242 F. Supp. 2d 33, 39 (D. Me. 2002) (“The
regulations require medical evidence of specific physical
limitations rather than conclusory estimates of overall
impairment of a body part.”); Musto v. Halter, 135 F. Supp. 2d
220, 233 (D. Mass. 2001) (“Although the record is indeed
peppered with references to [claimant’s] depression, there is
absolutely no indication that it rises to the level of
interfering with his inability to engage in any substantial
gainful activity.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).6
Martin also points to an April 17 physical therapy
appointment during which Martin complained of problems holding a
coffee cup. As with Martin’s April 7th appointment with Nurse
DeFeo and Paincare Centers, however, the ALJ did discuss the
records from Martin’s April 17 physical therapy appointment.
See Admin. Rec. at 20. Even if he had not, however, the ALJ is
not required to discuss records from every one of Martin’s
physical therapy appointments. See, e.g., Wright v. Astrue, No.
CIV.A. 11-30247-KPN, 2012 WL 2914324, at *4 (D. Mass. July 16,
2012) (“An administrative law judge . . . need not explicitly
refer to all of the evidence in his decision.”).
Martin argues that the ALJ did not review medical evidence
in the record after Dr. Fairley’s opinion that “revealed the
long-term effects Plaintiff suffered from the trauma of the car
accident, including marked degenerative disc disease and
Doc. no. 8-1 at 8.
Martin adds that he
“continually complained of pain in his cervical and lumbar
spine, and continually showed limited range of motion and
tenderness upon palpation.”
Id. at 9.
Martin points to no specific medical records that the ALJ
purportedly ignored, and instead simply states that the
limitations he references are “shown in the Joint Statement of
Martin appears to be referring to the February 24,
2015 MRI of his lumbar spine, which showed degenerative disc
disease, see doc. no. 13 at 8, and the report of his MRI of his
cervical spine, taken that same day, in which the radiologist
“suspect[s]” that Martin has myelomalacia, id.
Contrary to Martin’s assertion, the ALJ did discuss the
result of Martin’s MRIs, as well as medical records after the
For example, the ALJ noted that one of Martin’s treating
physicians, Dr. Jerry Knirk, stated in his records from a March
2015 appointment that Martin’s lumbar spine MRI did not
correlate with Martin’s reports of symptoms.
Indeed, there are
only two treatment notes post-dating Martin’s February 2015
MRIs, including the one from his visit with Dr. Knirk.
appointments, Martin complained primarily of neck pain, rather
than pain in his back.
See Admin. Rec. at 945 (listing “major
problem” as neck pain); id. at 947 (noting Martin’s appointment
is related to his “neck pain”).
Therefore, the ALJ did address the medical records relating
to Martin’s spine injury that post-dated Dr. Fairley’s review,
and adequately explained why they were not inconsistent with Dr.
Martin argues that the ALJ erred in relying on Dr.
Fairley’s opinion because Martin developed new conditions after
Dr. Fairley’s review that supported a finding of disability.
Specifically, he points to medical records showing that he had
problems with his left knee after March 14, 2014.
refers to his April 7, 2014 appointment with Paincare Centers
when he complained of left knee pain.
He notes that he received
treatment from various physicians for his left knee pain over
the next few months, before undergoing left knee arthroscopic
surgery in July.
The ALJ discussed the evidence relating to Martin’s left
knee and found that the knee impairment was non-severe.
Specifically, the ALJ discussed Martin’s April 7 appointment
with Paincare Centers and Nurse DeFeo, his treatment with Dr.
Freeman for worsening knee pain over the next month, his June
2014 MRI of his knee, and his July 2014 surgery.
The ALJ further discussed Martin’s medical records
regarding his knee after his surgery.
He noted that Martin went
to physical therapy after his surgery, and that by October 2014,
Martin reported that he was walking regularly, and had decreased
pain and increased function.
The ALJ further noted that Martin
did not complain of knee symptoms or receive treatment for his
knee impairment after that date.
The ALJ properly addressed the medical records regarding
Martin’s knee, which post-dated Dr. Fairley’s opinion, and found
that it was non-severe within the meaning of the Act and did not
satisfy the 12-month requirement for disability.
permissibly found that Martin’s knee impairment did not cause
him disability, and his reliance on Dr. Fairley’s opinion was
not error on that basis.
See Chabot v. U.S. Soc. Sec. Admin.,
No. 13-cv-126-PB, 2014 WL 2106498, at *13-14 (D.N.H. May 20,
2014) (holding that ALJ did not err in relying on state agency
physician’s opinion that did not take into account one year of
medical records because the claimant’s additional impairments
did not undermine state agency’s opinion).
In sum, Martin has failed to show that the ALJ erred in
relying on Dr. Fairley’s opinion.
See Wenzel v. Astrue, No. 11-
cv-269-PB, 2012 WL 2679456, at *5 (D.N.H. July 6, 2012) (holding
that ALJ did not err in relying on Dr. Fairley’s outdated
opinion because medical records post-dating the opinion were not
inconsistent); Bianco v. Astrue, No. C.A. 09-21 S, 2010 WL
2465437, at *1 (D.R.I. June 14, 2010) (holding that the ALJ did
not err in relying on state agency physician’s opinion that did
not take into account all medical evidence in the record because
claimant failed to show that there was any “material change in
his abilities after” the state agency physician issued his
opinion (internal quotation marks omitted)).
Raw Medical Data
Martin argues that the ALJ impermissibly used his lay
knowledge to interpret raw medical data.
points to an x-ray of his left knee, three x-rays of his spine,
an MRI of his left knee, two MRIs of his spine, surgical reports
related to his left knee, and an EKG showing “anteroseptal
Martin analogizes this case to Bell v. Astrue, No.
11-cv-45-PB, 2012 WL 124841 (D.N.H. Jan. 17, 2012), in which the
court reversed and remanded the Commissioner’s decision denying
benefits because the ALJ had interpreted MRI reports to show
that the claimant’s condition had not changed since the state
agency physician’s opinion.
In Bell, the ALJ interpreted the results of two MRIs to
conclude that the record showed functional limitations
consistent with the state agency physician’s prior opinion.
In reversing and remanding the Commissioner’s decision,
the court noted that the ALJ determined what the MRIs meant in
functional terms without the assistance of an expert, and
therefore he had improperly interpreted raw medical data.
Unlike in Bell, the ALJ in this case did not interpret raw
Although Martin lists various diagnostic tests,
he fails to point to any instances of the ALJ interpreting the
results without medical assistance.
For example, the ALJ
referenced Martin’s February 24, 2015 MRIs of his lumbar spine
and his cervical spine, discussing the language noted in the MRI
But unlike in Bell, the ALJ did not attempt to
translate the results into functional terms.
Instead, the ALJ
discussed treatment notes from Martin’s various doctors after
the date of Martin’s MRIs, which provided functional
The ALJ then concluded that those assessments were
consistent with Dr. Fairley’s opinion.
See Admin. Rec. at 22.
And, as stated, Dr. Knirk discussed Martin’s February 24, 2015
lumbar spine MRI and stated that the results “did not correlate
with the claimant’s reports of symptoms.”
In short, the ALJ did not interpret raw medical data in
Therefore, there was no error.
III. Evidence of Manipulative Limitations
Martin asserts that the ALJ ignored evidence in the record
that showed he had manipulative limitations that were not
included in the ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment.
Specifically, Martin cites his hearing testimony that he
experienced weakness, numbness, and difficulty using his arms to
pick up and hold things.
He also notes that he complained of
pain in his hands and arms and weakness in his hands and fingers
at several points in 2014 and 2015.
The ALJ addressed Martin’s subjective complaints regarding
his manipulative limitations.
In addressing Martin’s
complaints, the ALJ discussed the considerations commonly known
as the Avery factors.
23 (1st Cir. 1986).
See Avery v. Sec’y of HHS, 797 F.2d 19,
“There are a number of such factors,
including the claimant’s daily activities, medications used, and
other treatments or measures used to relieve symptoms.”
v. Berryhill, No. 15-cv-456-PB, 2017 WL 2670732, at *5 (D.N.H.
June 21, 2017) (citing § 416.929(c)(3)).
“Although an ALJ must
consider the Avery factors, he or she need not address each
Here, the ALJ discussed how Martin’s daily activities and
his treatment notes did not support his alleged limitations.
addition, as the ALJ noted, despite two years of records, there
was no objective medical evidence to support Martin’s complaints
that he had no use of his arms to reach or no use of his fingers
to do fine manipulation.
In short, although Martin points to
complaints he made about pain and weakness in his arms and
numbness in his hands, Martin’s reliance on his subjective
complaints do not show that the ALJ erred.
See Frustaglia v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 829 F.2d 192, 195 (1st Cir.
1987) (When reviewing an ALJ’s credibility determination, the
court defers to the ALJ because he “observed the claimant,
evaluated his demeanor, and considered how that testimony fit in
with the rest of the evidence.”); see also Conde v. Colvin, No.
15-cv-246-JD, 2016 WL 299017, at *5 (D.N.H. Jan. 25, 2016).
The record shows that Martin continued to seek treatment
for physical ailments from March 2013 until the hearing date.
But it is the ALJ’s role, not the court’s, “to weigh and resolve
conflicts in the evidence,” even when the record “could arguably
justify a different conclusion.”
Chabot, 2014 WL 2106498, at
*14; see Soderman v. Astrue, No. CIV.A. 08-40183-FDS, 2011 WL
4621400, at *9 (D. Mass. Sept. 30, 2011) (“Even if plaintiff is
correct in contending that the administrative record contains
evidence that could reasonably establish continuous disability,
it does not necessarily follow that the ALJ lacked substantial
evidence that it did not.”).
Because the ALJ’s decision in
assessing the medical evidence in the record is supported by
substantial evidence, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.
For the foregoing reasons, the claimant’s motion to reverse
and remand (doc. no. 8) is denied.
The Acting Commissioner’s
motion to affirm (document no. 11) is granted.
The clerk of court shall enter judgment accordingly and
close the case.
United States District Judge
February 9, 2018
Counsel of Record
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?