United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MICHAEL D. ARRINGTON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS
REGARDING DENIAL OF SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY INSURANCE
Gail Dein United States Magistrate Judge.
plaintiff, Michael D. Arrington (“Arrington”),
has brought this action pro se pursuant to sections
205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), in order to challenge the
final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his claim
for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”)
benefits. The matter is before the court on the
“Plaintiff's Motion for Order Reversing or
Remanding the Decision of the Commissioner” (Docket No.
24), by which the plaintiff is seeking an order reversing the
Commissioner's decision and awarding him benefits or, in
the alternative, remanding the matter to the Social Security
Administration for further administrative proceedings. It is
also before the court on the “Defendant's Motion
for Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner”
(Docket No. 31), by which the Commissioner is seeking an
order affirming her decision that the plaintiff was not
disabled during the relevant time period of March 11, 2007
through June 30, 2007, and was therefore not entitled to SSDI
benefits. At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”), in reaching his decision that Arrington
was not disabled, erred by failing to consider medical
evidence created after the date when the plaintiff was last
insured, and by failing to analyze whether the
plaintiff's physical impairments met or medically equaled
certain of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations.
Also at issue is whether the ALJ committed reversible error
in connection with his assessments of Arrington's
credibility and residual functional capacity, and in
connection with his determination that Arrington was capable
of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the
national and regional economies. In addition, Arrington
challenges the Social Security Appeals Council's denial
of his request for review of the ALJ's decision on the
grounds that the Appeals Council failed to credit newly
submitted medical evidence, and provided nothing more than
“a boilerplate justification” for its decision.
appeal, “the court's function is a narrow one
limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence
to support the [Commissioner's] findings and whether the
decision conformed to statutory requirements.”
Geoffroy v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
663 F.2d 315, 319 (1st Cir. 1981). The decision must be
affirmed, “even if the record arguably could justify a
different conclusion, so long as it is supported by
substantial evidence.” Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y
of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir.
1987). After a thorough review of the Appeals Council's
decision, the ALJ's decision and the underlying record in
this case, this court finds that the Commissioner's
denial of Arrington's claim was supported by substantial
evidence and must be upheld. Therefore, and for all the
reasons detailed below, the plaintiff's motion to reverse
or remand is DENIED and the Commissioner's motion to
affirm is ALLOWED.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
was born on February 4, 1960, and was 50 years old at the
time he applied for SSDI. (Tr. 312). He left high school
after the eleventh grade, but was able to earn a GED and to
complete a couple of semesters at a junior college. (Tr. 54).
During the time period from October 1980 to February 1985,
Arrington served in the United States Coast Guard. (Tr. 312,
1146). He subsequently held a variety of jobs, including jobs
as a security guard for various companies, a loss prevention
specialist in a retail store, and a package delivery driver
for United Parcel Service. (Tr. 55-63, 378). Arrington has
not engaged in any significant work activity since October
2002. (Tr. 377). He claims that he has been disabled from
working since March 10, 2007 as a result of degenerative disc
disease in his back and arthritis in his left leg and knee.
(Tr. 373, 377).
record indicates that Arrington has been suffering from knee
pain since 1988, when he twisted his left knee while working.
(Tr. 1146). Although Arrington underwent arthroscopic knee
surgery following the 1988 incident, he sustained additional
workplace injuries to his left knee in 1994 and 1995.
(Id.). As a result of those incidents, Arrington
underwent a second arthroscopic surgery and then a left ACL
reconstruction. (Id.; Tr. 1464).
did well for a couple of years following his ACL
reconstruction surgery. (Tr. 1464). However, he subsequently
developed chronic pain in his left knee, as well as feelings
of weakness and occasional buckling of the knee.
(See Tr. 517, 526, 1455, 1464). Beginning in 2007,
Arrington was treated with visco supplementation injections
on numerous occasions, but was unable to obtain long-term
relief from his knee pain and underwent another arthroscopic
surgery in 2010. (See, e.g., Tr.555-56,
586-88, 621-23, 692-94, 1146, 1464). The medical records show
that this surgery was not helpful, and that he was given
medication and a knee brace to address his continuing
complaints of pain. (Tr. 1464).
plaintiff also has a history of chronic back pain, and
testing has revealed moderate degenerative disc disease in
the lumbar spine. (Tr. 544, 742, 1540). According to the
medical records, Arrington has received medication to treat
sciatica stemming from his back condition. (Tr. 1540).
However, his complaints have been focused primarily on his
left knee condition.
Arrington's complaints of ongoing pain, none of the
treating, examining or consulting physicians have ever
indicated that the plaintiff's physical impairments
render him incapable of carrying out full time employment. On
the contrary, one of Arrington's orthopedic surgeons,
Gary J. Kelman, M.D., repeatedly authorized the plaintiff to
return to “sedentary work alternating with ambulatory
status 1:1; no climbing, squatting, kneeling, bending, or
stooping.” (See, e.g. Tr. 529, 540,
547, 556, 593, 1068). Similarly, in 2003, an independent
medical examiner found that Arrington remained capable of
performing sedentary work, and in 2010, two separate State
agency consultants determined that Arrington had the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to carry out
sedentary work or a limited range of light
work. (See Tr. 724-31, 873, 918-25).
Arrington disagrees with these assessments, and contends that
he has been disabled from working since 2007.
first sought Social Security benefits on December 31, 1997,
when he filed an application for Social Security Income
benefits claiming a disability onset date of October 30,
1997. (Dec. 1; Tr. 14). The application was denied on March
17, 1998, and Arrington did not appeal. (Id.).
However, in January 2004, the plaintiff filed new
applications for SSDI and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) benefits. (Id.). In his
applications, Arrington alleged that he had been disabled
from working since October 6, 2002 due to problems with his
left knee and left leg. See Arrington v. Soc. Sec.
Admin., 358 Fed.Appx. 89, 91 (11th Cir. 2009). The
applications were denied initially and on reconsideration.
Id. Arrington then requested and was granted a
hearing before an ALJ, which took place on November 28, 2006
in Miami, Florida. (Tr. 131). On March 10, 2007, the ALJ
issued a written decision denying Arrington's claims for
benefits. (Tr. 131-38). Therein, the ALJ found that Arrington
had not been under a disability, within the meaning of the
Social Security Act, from October 6, 2002 through the date of
her decision. (Tr. 131-38).
requested a review of the Florida ALJ's decision by the
Social Security Appeals Council, and on March 13, 2008, the
Appeals Council notified the plaintiff that his request had
been denied. (Tr. 139-41). He then filed a civil action in
the U.S. District Court for the District of Florida.
Arrington, 358 Fed.Appx. at 92. In a decision on the
parties' cross-motions for summary judgment in that case,
the District Court found that the ALJ's denial of
Arrington's claims for SSDI and SSI was supported by
substantial evidence. Id. Therefore, it entered
final judgment in favor of the Commissioner. Id.
appealed the adverse ruling to the Eleventh Circuit Court of
Appeals. See Id. at 91. On December 22, 2009, the
Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision.
Id. at 96. Thus, the Appeals Court determined that
the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial
evidence, and that Arrington was not under a disability from
October 6, 2002 through the date of the ALJ's decision on
March 10, 2007. See id. Arrington does not dispute
that the Eleventh Circuit's decision precludes him from
claiming disability at any time prior to March 11, 2007.
plaintiff filed another application for SSDI benefits in June
2010, claiming that he had been unable to work since March
10, 2007 due to his knee and back conditions. (Tr. 312-15,
377). This application forms the basis of the claim that is
presently before this court on appeal. To qualify for
SSDI benefits, an individual must become disabled during the
period under which he is insured by the program. See
20 C.F.R. 404.131; Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31,
32 (1st Cir. 2016) (explaining that in order “to be
eligible for benefits, [SSDI claimant] had to demonstrate
that her disability existed prior to her [date last
insured]”). Because Arrington was last insured on June
30, 2007, he had to establish that he was disabled during the
time period between March 11, 2007 and June 30, 2007.
(See Dec. 3; Tr. 16, 111).
plaintiff's application was denied initially on August
18, 2010, and upon reconsideration on October 28, 2010. (Tr.
106-07, 143-49). Subsequently, Arrington requested a hearing
before an ALJ. (Tr. 150-51). The request was granted and the
hearing took place on February 6, 2012 in Miami, Florida
where the plaintiff was residing at the time. (Tr. 30-40;
173-77). On February 21, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in
which he found that the plaintiff was not disabled during the
relevant time period. (Tr. 250-59). Accordingly, the ALJ
denied Arrington's 2010 claim for SSDI. (Tr. 259). The
plaintiff immediately filed a request for review by the
Social Security Appeals Council. (Tr. 233-35). This time, the
Appeals Council granted Arrington's request for review,
and determined that the ALJ had committed errors of law. (Tr.
124-27). Thus, on September 7, 2013, the Appeals Council
vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the matter back
to the ALJ for a new hearing on Arrington's SSDI claim.
December 26, 2013, Arrington moved from Florida to Boston.
(Tr. 219). Consequently, the new hearing took place in
Massachusetts on June 10, 2014. (Tr. 41-105). Arrington, who
declined representation by an attorney or professional Social
Security representative, appeared and testified at the
hearing. (Tr. 50, 53-99, 102-05). The ALJ also elicited
testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), who
described the plaintiff's vocational background based on
his past work experience and responded to hypothetical
questions, which were aimed at determining whether jobs exist
in the national and regional economies for an individual with
the same age, educational background, work experience and RFC
as the plaintiff. (Tr. 99-02). On July 22, 2014, the ALJ
issued a decision denying Arrington's claim for benefits.
filed a request for review of the ALJ's July 22, 2014
decision by the Social Security Appeals Council. (Tr. 9-10).
In connection with his request for review, Arrington
submitted a “Statement in Support of Appeal Council
Review” setting forth his challenges to the ALJ's
decision, as well as a letter from Patrick Barry, M.D. dated
February 6, 1989, and a document dated May 22, 2014 from the
Department of Veterans Affairs. (See Tr. 2, 4, 29,
490-504). On December 19, 2014, the Appeals Council notified
the plaintiff that it had considered his arguments and the
materials he had submitted, but that they did not provide a
basis for changing the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-2).
Accordingly, the Appeals Council denied Arrington's
request for review. (Tr. 1). As described below, Arrington
challenges the adequacy of the Appeals Council's
decision, and argues that it should have provided a more
detailed justification for its determination. However, this
court finds that the Appeals Council had no such obligation,
and that the plaintiff's challenge to the Appeals
Council's decision lacks merit.
the Appeals Council “found no reason under [its] rules
to review the [ALJ's] decision[, ]” the ALJ's
July 22, 2014 decision constituted the final decision of the
Commissioner with respect to Arrington's claim. (Tr. 1).
Accordingly, Arrington has exhausted all of his
administrative remedies, and the matter is ripe for review
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
claimant is not entitled to SSDI benefits unless he is
“disabled” within the meaning of the Social
Security Act, which defines “disability” 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 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). In the instant case, the ALJ concluded that
Arrington “was not under a disability, as defined in
the Social Security Act, at any time from March 11, 2007, the
earliest allowable onset date, through June 30, 2007, the
date last insured.” (Dec. Finding #11; Tr. 28 (citation
omitted)). There is no dispute that the ALJ, in reaching his
decision that Arrington was not disabled, performed the
five-step sequential evaluation required by 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520. The procedure resulted in the following analysis,
which is detailed further in the ALJ's “Findings of
Fact and Conclusions of Law.” (See Dec. 5-15;
first inquiry in the five-step evaluation process is whether
the claimant is “engaged in substantial gainful work
activity[.]” Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5
(1st Cir. 2001). If so, the claimant is automatically
considered not disabled and the application for benefits is
denied. See id. In this case, the ALJ found that
Arrington did not engage in such activity during the relevant
time period. (Dec. Finding #2; Tr. 18). Therefore, he
proceeded to the second step in the sequential analysis.
second inquiry is whether the claimant has a “severe
impairment, ” meaning an “impairment or
combination of impairments which significantly limits [the
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If not,
the claimant is deemed not to be disabled and the application
for benefits is denied. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5.
Here, the ALJ determined that Arrington suffered from the
following severe impairments during the period from March 11,
2007 through June 30, 2007:
left knee pain status post arthroscopy (1988), status post
arthroscopy with resection of partial ACL tear and partial
medial meniscectomy (1994), and status post arthroscopy with
bone graft reconstruction of ACL (1995); low back pain due to
mild spondylosis with moderate degenerative disc disease at
¶ 5-S1 (per MRI in May 2006).
(Dec. Finding #3; Tr. 18 (citation omitted)). While the ALJ
acknowledged Arrington's allegation that he had also been
suffering from a mental impairment since 2007, the ALJ found
that there was no objective evidence to support such a claim.
(Dec. 6; Tr. 19). Accordingly, the ALJ found that the
plaintiff had not established the presence of a severe mental
impairment on or before the date last insured. (See
Dec. 5-6; Tr. 18-19).
the ALJ determined that Arrington had impairments that were
severe, he proceeded to step three in the sequential
analysis. The third inquiry is whether the claimant has an
impairment equivalent to a specific list of impairments
contained in Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations.
See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5; 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(d). At this step, the ALJ concluded that
Arrington's impairments, either alone or in combination,
did not meet or medically equal any of the listed
impairments. The parties dispute whether this finding was
supported by substantial evidence.
connection with his finding at step three, the ALJ considered
whether Arrington's impairments met or equaled Listing
1.02 regarding major dysfunction of a joint, or Listing 1.04
concerning spinal impairments. (Dec. 6; Tr. 19). The ALJ
explained that none of the treating or examining physicians
had presented findings that were equivalent in severity to
these or any other listed impairment. (Id.). He
further stated that he had considered the opinions of the
State agency consultants who had evaluated this issue at the
initial and reconsideration levels of the administrative
review process and had determined that Arrington's
impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed
impairments. (Id.). As described below, this court
finds that there is substantial support for the ALJ's
decision on this issue.
finding that Arrington's impairments did not meet or
medically equal any of the listed impairments, the ALJ
proceeded to step four in his analysis. The fourth inquiry
asks whether “the applicant's ‘residual
functional capacity' is such that he or she can still
perform past relevant work[.]” Seavey, 276
F.3d at 5. Thus, in order to answer this question, the ALJ
must first determine the claimant's RFC. In the instant
case, the ALJ assessed Arrington's RFC as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, I find
that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the
residual functional capacity to lift and/or carry 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He was able to stand
and/or walk for 2 hours over an 8-hour workday. He was able
to sit for 6 hours over an 8-hour workday. He could
occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl.
He needed to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold,
humidity, vibration and hazards.
(Dec. Finding #5; Tr. 19). Arrington argues that this finding
was erroneous because the ALJ did not properly evaluate the
credibility of Arrington's statements regarding the
nature and extent of his pain and other symptoms, and because
the ALJ adopted the opinion of a State agency consultant who
did not have an opportunity to review the full medical record
instead of adopting the opinions of Arrington's treating
physicians. As explained in detail below, this court finds
that the ALJ's decision on these matters was appropriate
and does not warrant reversal or a remand to the Social
reaching his conclusion regarding Arrington's RFC, the
ALJ followed well-established procedures. Thus, the ALJ first
considered the plaintiff's symptoms and the extent to
which those symptoms were consistent with the objective
medical evidence and other evidence of record. (Dec. 6-12;
Tr. 19-25). Because the ALJ determined that Arrington's
medically deter-minable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause the plaintiff's alleged symptoms, he
went on to determine whether the plaintiff's subjective
statements about his pain and other symptoms were credible in
light of the record as a whole. (Dec. 12-13; Tr. 25-26).
Accordingly, the ALJ considered the plaintiff's testimony
at the hearing, the objective medical evidence and the
available opinion evidence. (See Dec. 12-13; Tr.
25-26). The ALJ concluded that in this case, “the
claimant's statements concerning the intensity,
persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms are not
entirely credible[, ]” to the extent Arrington
testified to greater limitations than those determined by the
ALJ in his assessment of the plaintiff's RFC. (Dec. 12;
explaining the basis for his RFC determination, including the
basis for his assessment of Arrington's credibility, the
ALJ concluded that Arrington was unable to perform his past
relevant work as a loss prevention security guard or a driver
for United Parcel Service. (Dec. 13; Tr. 26). Consequently,
he reached the fifth and last step in the sequential
fifth inquiry is whether, given the claimant's RFC,
education, work experience and age, the claimant is capable
of performing other work. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5;
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is
not disabled. Id. At step five, the Commissioner has
the burden “of coming forward with evidence of specific
jobs in the national economy that the applicant can still
perform.” Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Here, the ALJ
relied on the VE's testimony to conclude that Arrington
was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy, including the unskilled,
sedentary jobs of a surveillance system monitor, a food order
clerk and a circuit board inspector. (Dec. 14-15; Tr. 27-28).
Therefore, the ALJ found that Arrington was not disabled
under the Social Security Act on or before his date last
insured. (Dec. 15; Tr. 28). Arrington challenges the
ALJ's reliance on the VE's testimony, as well as his
conclusion that the plaintiff could perform other work. For
the reasons discussed below, this court finds that
Arrington's challenge to the ALJ's finding at step
five of the disability analysis is insufficient to warrant
relief in his favor, and that the Commissioner's decision
to deny his claim for SSDI benefits must be affirmed.
factual details relevant to this court's analysis are
described below where appropriate.
Standard of Review
action, Arrington is seeking judicial review of the
Commissioner's “final decision” pursuant to
the Social Security Act § 205(g), 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) (the “Act”). The Act provides in relevant
part as follows:
Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a
party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain
a review of such decision by a civil action …. The
court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and
transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or
reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security, with or without remanding the cause for a
rehearing. The findings of the Commissioner of Social
Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial
evidence, shall be conclusive ….
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (emphasis added). The Supreme Court
has defined “substantial evidence” to mean
“more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)
(quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197,
229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)); accord
Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991).
First Circuit has explained:
In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, we are to
keep in mind that “issues of credibility and the
drawing of permissible inference from evidentiary facts are
the prime responsibility of the [Commissioner].” The
[Commissioner] may (and, under [her] regulations, must) take
medical evidence. But the resolution of conflicts in the
evidence and the determination of the ultimate question of
disability is for [her], not for the doctors or for the
courts. We must uphold the [Commissioner's] findings in
this case if a reasonable mind, reviewing the record as a
whole, could accept it as adequate to support [her]
Lizotte v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
654 F.2d 127, 128 (1st Cir. 1981) (quoting Rodriguez v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218,
222 (1st Cir. 1981)). Therefore, “the court's
function is a narrow one limited to determining whether there
is substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's]
findings and whether the decision conformed to statutory
requirements.” Geoffroy, 663 F.2d at 319. The
Commissioner's decision must be affirmed, “even if
the record arguably could justify a different conclusion, so
long as it is supported by substantial evidence.”
Rodriguez Pagan, 819 F.2d at 3.
in the presence of substantial evidence, however, the Court
may review conclu-sions of law, and invalidate findings of
fact that are ‘derived by ignoring evidence,
misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to
experts.'” Musto v. Halter, 135 F.Supp.2d
220, 225 (D. Mass. 2001) (quoting Nguyen v. Chater,
172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam)) (internal
citations omitted). “Thus, if the ALJ made a legal or
factual error, the court may reverse or remand such decision
to consider new, material evidence or to apply the correct
legal standard.” Ross v. Astrue, C.A. No.
09-11392-DJC, 2011 WL 2110217, at *2 (D. Mass. May 26, 2011)
(internal citation omitted).
Plaintiff's Challenge to the Appeals Council's
first takes issue with the Appeals Council's December 19,
2014 decision to deny his request for review of the ALJ's
decision denying his claim for SSDI benefits. (Pl. Mem.
(Docket No. 25) at 7-11). Specifically, Arrington contends
that the Appeals Council erred by offering nothing more
“than a boilerplate justification” for its
decision despite acknowledging that it was considering
additional evidence. (See id. at 8, 10-11). He
further argues that the Appeals Council's failure to find
a basis for changing the ALJ's decision in the newly
submitted material, as well as its failure to find fault with
the ALJ's handling of medical evidence generated after
the date last insured, amounted to an egregious error or a
mistake of law. (Id. at 9-10, 15). This court finds
that the plaintiff' challenge to the Appeals
Council's decision is without merit.
Council's Failure to Provide a Detailed ...