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Taylor v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 15, 2016

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


          KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON United States Magistrate Judge

         Before the court is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) regarding the plaintiff's entitlement to Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff Kent Alexander Taylor (“Plaintiff”) asserts that the Commissioner's decision denying him such benefits - memorialized in a July 23, 2014 decision by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) - impermissibly rejected aspects of a Mental Residual Functional Capability Questionnaire completed by Plaintiff's treating mental health care provider and ignored substantial record evidence that contradicted his conclusion that Plaintiff was not disabled from working by mental health impairments. Plaintiff has filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, while the Commissioner has moved to affirm on the grounds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         The parties have consented to this court's jurisdiction (Dkt. No. 17). 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 judgment on the pleadings.

         I. Procedural background

         Plaintiff filed his initial application for SSI benefits on August 20, 2009. See Taylor v. Astrue, 899 F.Supp.2d 83, 85 (D. Mass. 2012) (“Taylor I”). He claimed he was disabled due to a herniated disc and numbness in his left leg and foot, with an onset date of November 1, 2008. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was scheduled in front of an ALJ, which hearing was held on May 20, 2011. Id. The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim in a decision dated July 27, 2011. The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff filed an action in this court. Id. at 86. This court concluded that the ALJ had not adequately explained the weight he assigned to medical opinion evidence from Gina Hughes, an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse treating Plaintiff's mental health impairments, and that this error in the evaluation of Ms. Hughes' opinion might have affected the outcome of the case. The court remanded the matter to the Commissioner for a new hearing. See Id. at 88-90.

         On February 16, 2012, Plaintiff filed a new claim for SSI (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) at 577). The Appeals Council ordered that the subsequent claim be associated with the remanded claim, and, on October 25, 2013, the ALJ conducted a single hearing on both claims (id.). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as that term is defined in the Social Security Act (“the Act”), since August 20, 2009, and denied both claims (id. at 592-93). The Appeals Council denied review, and this appeal followed.

         II. Disability standards and the ALJ's decision

         At issue is whether Plaintiff was disabled by a combination of physical and mental impairments during the relevant period (Dkt. No. 13 at 3). The Act defines a person who is disabled as an individual who “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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual is considered disabled within the meaning of the Act

only if his physical and 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 also generally Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146-149 (1987).

         In determining disability, the Commissioner follows a five-step protocol described by the First Circuit, as follows:

First, is the claimant currently employed? If he is, the claimant is automatically considered not disabled.
Second, does the claimant have a severe impairment? A ‘severe impairment' means an impairment ‘which significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental capacity to perform basic work-related functions.' If he does not have an impairment of at least this degree of severity, he is automatically not disabled.
Third, does the claimant have an impairment equivalent to a specific list of impairments in the regulations' Appendix 1? If the claimant has an impairment of so serious a degree of ...

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