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McDonnell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 28, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction

         This is a request by Plaintiff Raymond Charles McDonnell ("Plaintiff") for judicial review of a final decision by the acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") regarding Plaintiff's entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff challenges the Commissioner's decision denying him such benefits, which is memorialized in a November 26, 2013 decision by an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), on the asserted ground that the ALJ erred in concluding that Plaintiff's mental impairments of depression and anxiety were not severe.[1] Plaintiff has moved for judgment on the pleadings requesting that the Commissioner's decision be reversed, or, in the alternative, remanded for further proceedings (Dkt. No. 11). The Commissioner has moved for an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner (Dkt. No. 15).

         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 allows Plaintiff's motion in part and directs a remand to the Commissioner for additional evaluation of the evidence in light of this decision and, if necessary, additional development of the evidence. The court denies the Commissioner's motion.

         II. Procedural Background

         On April 13, 2009, Plaintiff applied for SSDI, alleging a March 14, 2006 onset of disability (Administrative Record ("A.R.") at 13, 185-186, 258). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration (id. at 73-75, 80-82). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and one was held on May 3, 2011 (id. at 37-70, 83-84). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on June 6, 2011, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying Plaintiff's claim (id. at 10-24). On September 8, 2011, the Appeals Council denied review and affirmed the ALJ's decision (id. at 1-5). Plaintiff then sought judicial review, and, on July 23, 2012, based on the parties' agreement, another session of this court issued an order reversing the ALJ's decision, remanding the case for further administrative proceedings, and entering judgment for Plaintiff (id. at 755-759). Following a new hearing in front of the same ALJ on August 13, 2012, the ALJ issued a new decision on November 26, 2013, again finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying Plaintiff's claim (id. at 676-694). The Appeals Council denied review on March 4, 2015 (id. at 667-670). Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. This appeal followed.

         III. Legal Standards

         A. 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). "Work-related mental activities generally … include the abilities to: understand, carry out, and remember instructions; use judgment in making work-related decisions; respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers and work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting." Id. at *6.

         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 other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can nonetheless perform. Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7.

         B. 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. 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. Id. So long as the substantial ...

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