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Halla v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 20, 2016

BRIAN D. HALLA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR ORDER REVERSING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION AND DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DKT. NOS. 14 & 16)

Katherine A. Robertson, United States Magistrate Judge

I. Introduction

This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) regarding Plaintiff’s entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Brian D. Halla (“Plaintiff”) asserts that the Commissioner’s decision denying him such benefits - memorialized in a August 29, 2013 decision by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) - is in error because it is not based on substantial evidence and contains errors of law. Plaintiff has moved to reverse the Commissioner’s decision (Dkt. No. 14) and the Commissioner, in turn, has moved to affirm (Dkt. No. 16).

The parties have consented to this court’s jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. For the following reasons, the court will allow the Commissioner’s motion to affirm and deny Plaintiff’s motion for an order reversing the Commissioner’s decision.

II. Procedural background

Plaintiff applied for SSDI on July 22, 2011, alleging an April 15, 2010 onset of disability due to degenerative disc disease and torticollis (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) at 80, 138-144). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration (id. at 80-82, 84-86). Following a hearing on June 19, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision on August 29, 2013, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying Plaintiff’s claim (id. at 14-34). The Appeals Council denied review (id. at 1-6). Thus, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. This appeal followed.

III. Discussion

A. Standard of review

The District Court may enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the final decision of the Commissioner, with or without remanding for rehearing. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review “is limited to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). The court reviews questions of law de novo, but must defer to the ALJ’s findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence. See id. (citing Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir.1999)). Substantial evidence exists “‘if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the] conclusion.’” Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)). In applying the substantial evidence standard, the court must be mindful that it is the province of the ALJ, and not the courts, to determine issues of credibility, resolve conflicts in the evidence, and draw conclusions from such evidence. See id. So long as the substantial evidence standard is met, the ALJ’s factual findings are conclusive even if the record “arguably could support a different conclusion.” Id. at 770. That said, the Commissioner may not ignore evidence, misapply the law, or judge matters entrusted to experts. See Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35.

B. Standard for entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance

In order to qualify for SSDI, a claimant must demonstrate that he was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act prior to the expiration of his insured status for disability insurance benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). A claimant is disabled for purposes of SSDI if he 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). A claimant is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity when 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. § 423(d)(2)(A).

The Commissioner evaluates a claimant’s impairment under a five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in the regulations promulgated under the statute. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The hearing officer must determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1 to the regulations; (4) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing previous relevant work; and (5) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing any work considering the claimant’s age, education, and work experience. See id; see also Goodermote v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6-7 (1st Cir. 1982) (describing the five-step process). If the hearing officer determines at any step of the evaluation that the claimant is or is not disabled, the analysis does not continue to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

Before proceeding to steps four and five, the Commissioner must make an assessment of the claimant’s “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which the Commissioner uses at step four to determine whether the claimant can do past relevant work and at step five to determine if the claimant can adjust to other work. See id. “RFC is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities.” Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996).

The claimant has the burden of proof through step four of the analysis. At step five, the Commissioner has the burden of showing the existence of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform ...


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