United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION
FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO
AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DKT. NOS. 16 &
KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
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.
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"), hyperlipidemia, fatty liver, and depression
(id. at 13, 63, 226).
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.
Standard of Review
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.
Standard for Entitlement to Social Security Disability
Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
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).
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
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
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.
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. §
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.
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.
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