United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ORDER REVERSING COMMISSIONER'S DECISION AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR ORDER AFFIRMING IT (Dkt. Nos. 17 and 19)
MARK G. MASTROIANNI, District Judge.
This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by Carolyn Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), denying Angel Martis Garay's ("Plaintiff's") application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (referencing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Plaintiff has filed a motion for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner (Dkt. No. 17), and, on behalf of the Commissioner, the Government ("Defendant") has filed a motion for an order affirming her decision. (Dkt. No. 19.) At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by giving improper weight or failing to sufficiently discuss certain individuals' opinions, and whether the ALJ failed to sufficiently consider or discuss side effects from Plaintiff's medications.
As discussed below, the ALJ erred in failing to properly explore, consider, and discuss the potentially detrimental impact of Plaintiff's medication's side effects upon Plaintiff's ability to work. The court therefore grants Plaintiff's motion and remands the case.
The parties are familiar with the factual and procedural history of this case, so the court begins its discussion with the standard of review.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The role of a district court reviewing an ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the conclusions were supported by substantial evidence and based on the correct legal standard. See Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001). "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security [and his designee, the ALJ] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Substantial evidence means that "a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the Commissioner's] conclusion." Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981). Credibility judgments made by ALJs who have "observed the claimant, evaluated his demeanor, and considered how that testimony fit in with the rest of the evidence, [are] entitled to deference, especially when supported by specific findings." Frustaglia v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 829 F.2d 192, 195 (1st Cir. 1987). The court reviews questions of law de novo. Ward v. Comm'r of Social Security, 21 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000).
II. DISABILITY STANDARD AND THE ALJ'S DECISION
Entitlement to SSI requires a showing of both disability and financial need. See 42 U.S.C. § 1381a. Here, Plaintiff's financial need is not challenged.
The Social Security Act (the "Act") defines disability, in part, as the inability "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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual is considered disabled under the Act,
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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). See generally Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146-49 (1987).
In determining disability, the Commissioner follows the five-step protocol described by the First Circuit as follows:
1) if the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity, the application is denied; 2) if the applicant does not have, or has not had within the relevant time period, a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the application is denied; 3) if the impairment meets the conditions for one of the "listed" impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the application is granted; 4) if the applicant's "residual functional capacity" is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work, then the application is denied; 5) if the ...