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Le v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

December 5, 2016

TUAN QUOC LE, Plaintiff
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant


          KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Before the court is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") regarding an individual's entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1381(c)(3). Plaintiff Tuan Quoc Le ("Plaintiff") asserts that the Commissioner's decision denying him such benefits -- memorialized in a May 16, 2014 decision of an administrative law judge ("ALJ") -- is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ committed three errors by failing to: (1) undertake a function-by-function analysis of Plaintiff's ability to sit and stand; (2) elicit a reasonable explanation for the apparent conflict between the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") and the testimony of the Vocational Expert ("VE"), in violation of Social Security Regulation ("SSR") 00-4p, 2000 WL 1898704 (Dec. 4, 2000); and (3) incorporate Plaintiff's limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace into his Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). Plaintiff has filed a motion to reverse or remand (Dkt. No. 16) and the Commissioner, in turn, has moved to affirm (Dkt. No. 27). Plaintiff responded to the Commissioner's motion (Dkt. No. 29).

         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 to reverse and remand.

         II. Factual Background

         Plaintiff completed the twelfth grade in Vietnam before coming to Massachusetts in 1990 or 1991 (Administrative Record ("A.R.") at 28). He worked full-time for about eighteen years manufacturing computer cables (id. at 29-30). Because his health prevented him from performing the job, which required him to stand for a substantial amount of time and to lift fifty pounds of weight, he stopped working in January 2012 when he was 48 years old (id. at 31, 74, 193, 226). In his applications for DIB and SSI, Plaintiff alleged that he was disabled due to peripheral neuropathy in his feet and lower legs related to Type II diabetes mellitus ("DM"), [1]hyperlipidemia, fatty liver, and depression (id. at 13, 63, 226).

         III. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on December 4, 2012 alleging an onset of disability on October 19, 2012 (id. at 192, 200). The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration (id. at 90-93). Following a hearing on May 8, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision eight days later finding Plaintiff was not disabled (id. at 7, 18, 19). The Appeals Council denied review (id. at 1-3). This appeal followed.

         IV. Discussion

         A. Legal Standards

         1. 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 a rehearing. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). 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)). "Complainants face a difficult battle in challenging the Commissioner's determination because, under the substantial evidence standard, the [c]ourt must uphold the Commissioner's determination, 'even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence.'" Amaral v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 797 F.Supp.2d 154, 159 (D. Mass. 2010) (quoting Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987)). 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 Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769. That said, the Commissioner may not ignore evidence, misapply the law, or judge matters entrusted to experts. See Nguyen, 172 F.3d at 35.

         2. Standard for Entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income.

         In order to qualify for DIB, a claimant must demonstrate that he was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the "Act") prior to the expiration of his insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (D). SSI benefits, on the other hand, require a showing of both disability and financial need. See 42 U.S.C. § 1381a. "Plaintiff's need, for purposes of SSI, and insured status, for purposes of [DIB], are not challenged. The only question is whether the ALJ had substantial evidence with which to conclude that Plaintiff did not suffer from a disability." Bitsacos v. Barnhart, 353 F.Supp.2d 161, 165-66 (D. Mass. 2005).

         The Act defines disability, in part, 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). An individual is considered disabled under the Act only if his physical or 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. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). See generally Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146- 49 (1987).

         The Commissioner evaluates a claimant's impairment under a five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in regulations promulgated under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). 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, 416.920.

         Before proceeding to steps four and five, the Commissioner must make an assessment of the claimant's 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 do other work. See id. "The 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." SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374187, 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 and co-workers and work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting." SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374187, at *6. Put another way, "[a]n individual's RFC is defined as 'the most you can still do despite your limitations.'" Dias v. Colvin, 52 F.Supp.3d 270, 278 (D. Mass. 2014) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)).

         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 notwithstanding impairment(s). See Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7.

         B. Medical Records

         1. Physical condition.

         Plaintiff presented the ALJ and the court with medical records that spanned the period from February 2011 through March 2014. Hampden County Physician Associates ("HCPA") and Springfield Medical Associates ("SMA") treated Plaintiff for DM, hyperlipidemia, fatty liver, and depression. Plaintiff received diabetes counseling at the Mercy Medical Center (see, e.g. A.R. at 342). J. Harry Courniotes II, M.D. treated Plaintiff's recurring onchyomycosis (toenail fungus) (see, e.g., id. at 308-09). Details of these records will be included in the discussion of Plaintiff's objections.

         2. Mental condition.

         Victor Carbone, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission's Disability Determination Services, examined Plaintiff on May 8, 2013 and on October 1, 2013 (id. at 372-375, 430-434). After the initial assessment, Dr. Carbone diagnosed Plaintiff with "[d]epressive [d]isorder not otherwise specified, " and assigned a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 62 (id. at 375). Plaintiff returned to Dr. Carbone in October 2013 for an organic assessment (id. at 430). Testing was restricted due to Plaintiff's limited ability to speak English and his lack of knowledge of the "American alphabet" (id.). Dr. Carbone, again, diagnosed depression as Plaintiff's "major issue" (id. at 434). In addition, testing revealed borderline intellectual functioning and above-average visuomotor integration skills as reflected by his performance on the Bender Visuomotor Gestalt Test - II (id.). Plaintiff's GAF score remained at 62 (id.).

         C. The ...

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