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Boulia v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 13, 2016

JOSEPH C. BOULIA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         On June 9, 2015, plaintiff Joseph C. Boulia (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), appealing the denial of his claims for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner’s decision denying him such benefits - memorialized in a November 21, 2013 decision by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) - was not based on substantial evidence and was made in error. The parties have filed cross-motions to resolve Plaintiff’s claims, respectively seeking an order for judgment on the pleadings (Dkt. No. 12) and an order affirming the Commissioner’s decision (Dkt. No. 24).

         The parties have consented to this court’s jurisdiction (Dkt. No. 14). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. For the following reasons, the court will deny Plaintiff’s motion and allow the Commissioner’s motion.

         II. Procedural Background

         On August 22, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI, followed, on August 23, 2011, by an application for SSI (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) at 207-225). Both petitions alleged a December 31, 2007 onset of disability. Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and on reconsideration (id. at 93-115, 118-145). Following a September 26, 2013 hearing before an ALJ, at which Plaintiff appeared with a representative, and at which a medical expert and an impartial vocational expert testified (id. at 23, 25, 40-82), the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled (id. at 14-35). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review (id. at 1-5). The ALJ’s decision thus 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). The court’s review is limited, however, “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) (citing Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999)). The court reviews questions of law de novo, but it must defer to the ALJ’s findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (citing Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35). Substantial evidence exists “if 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). In applying the substantial evidence standard, the court is 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. Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991). 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. The ALJ’s findings of fact, however, “are not conclusive when derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts.” Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35. If the ALJ has made a legal or factual error, the court should reverse or remand such a decision to consider new material evidence or to apply the correct legal standard. See Manso-Pizarro v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         B. Entitlement to Benefits

         To be found eligible for either disability benefits or supplemental security income, an applicant must be 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); see also Bourinot v. Colvin, 95 F.Supp.3d 161, 172 (D. Mass. 2015). 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 Commissioner 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. at § 404.1520(a)(4); 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 Commissioner 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(a)(4).

         Before proceeding to steps four and five, the Commissioner must make an assessment of the claimant’s “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is relied upon 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 perform notwithstanding medically determinable impairments. See Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7.

         C. The ALJ’s decision

         Plaintiff claimed to be disabled by chronic back pain and a mental health impairment. The ALJ engaged in the five-part analysis required by the regulations. At the first step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2007, his alleged onset date (A.R. at 17). At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had two severe impairments - lower back pain due to degenerative disc disease and a mood disorder - but concluded that these impairments, taken separately or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (id.). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), [1] as long as he had the option to sit and stand at will, was not required to climb, stoop, bend, balance, twist, kneel or crawl more than occasionally, and could avoid heights, ladders, and hazards including dangerous machinery. Having found that symptoms of pain and mood disorder would affect Plaintiff’s ability to maintain persistence, concentration or pace, the ALJ further limited Plaintiff to work that involved simple, routine, and repetitive tasks requiring limited concentration, no independent decision making, minimal interaction and contact with the general public and co-workers, and no more than occasional changes in routine (id. at 18).

         Plaintiff had previously worked as a finish carpenter and cabinet maker. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work (id. at 33). At step five, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, and relying on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs found in significant numbers in the national economy, and, therefore, Plaintiff was not disabled (id. at 33-34).

         D. Summary of evidence

         i. Plaintiff’s background and daily activities

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he was 41, married with children, and living with his family (id. at 44, 58). He had completed tenth grade and obtained his GED through the Job Corps (id. at 44). He worked as a finish carpenter and cabinet maker until he was laid off in December 2007 (A.R. at 44-45). According to Plaintiff, he drove, “but not much at all” (id. at 59). Although his wife worked part time and also had medical issues, she helped him with meals, the laundry, showering and “that sort of thing” (id. at 58-59). He did not do any snow removal and his brother did the yard work around the house where he lived (id. at 59-60). On a typical day, Plaintiff woke his daughter up and made sure she had something to eat before she went to school. Sometimes he did a few things around the house, but mostly he was in bed all day. He did not take walks or go outside much, and he and his wife had little social life (id. at 62). He had no interest in activities outside the home, had recently lost at least 20 pounds, did not sleep much at night, and took two or three naps a day, lasting anywhere from two to four hours (id. at 64-65).

         ii. Physical impairment and pain

         It is undisputed that Plaintiff has a history of chronic back pain and that objective findings supported Plaintiff’s claims of pain. See Irlanda Ortiz, 956 F.2d at 769 (evidence of ruptured disc constitutes objective evidence of medical impairment that can be expected to produce pain). The records show that Plaintiff had back surgery in 1999 and again in 2002 (A.R. at 440, 516) with some post-operative improvement in his pain (e.g., id. at 337). In 2006, he was in a motor vehicle accident that increased his back pain (id.). During the relevant period (2008 through the hearing date), he treated with several primary ...

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