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Swales v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration



         Plaintiff James Swales appeals from a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") upholding the ruling of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") that rejected his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in determining his physical and mental residual functional capacity ("RFC") and in concluding that jobs existed in the economy that he could perform.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on July 5, 2012, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2007.[2] His claim was first denied on October 9, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on February 21, 2013. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing was held on July 1, 2014. At the hearing, plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified.

         A. Applicable Statutes and Regulations

         To receive SSI benefits, a claimant must be “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The impairment “must be 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.” Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).

         The ALJ analyzes whether a claimant is disabled using an established “five-step sequential evaluation process.” See 20 C.F.R.§ 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). Under this framework, the ALJ first determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful work activity. If not, then at step two, the ALJ decides whether the claimant has a “severe” medical impairment or impairments, which means the impairment “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” id. § 416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, then the ALJ considers third whether the impairment or impairments meets or equals an entry in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and meets the duration requirement. If so, then the claimant is considered disabled. If not, the ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC, which is “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his] limitations, ” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ then moves to step four and determines whether the claimant's RFC allows him to perform his past relevant work. If the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he is not disabled. If the claimant does not, the ALJ decides, at step five, whether the claimant can do other work in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the claimant can, he is not considered disabled; otherwise, he is. “Once the applicant has met his or her burden at Step 4 to show that he or she is unable to do past work due to the significant limitation, the Commissioner then has the burden at Step 5 of coming forward with evidence of specific jobs in the national economy that the applicant can still perform.” Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.912(f), 416.960(c)(2).

         B. The Initial Rejection and the ALJ's Decision

         In a July 25, 2014, written decision, structured around the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. At the first step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 5, 2012, the date on which he filed his SSI application.[3] Next, at step two, he found that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: disorder of the back, disorder of the right knee status post ACL reconstruction in 2005, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Docket # 11-2, at 13. Before moving to step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff's RFC:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except that the claimant can only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and can never climb ladders. He can push and pull with his right lower extremity no more than occasionally. He must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation. He is limited to only occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors, and he is limited to the performance of simple, routine, repetitive instructions.

Id. at 14-15. The ALJ explained that he “considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” and that he “also considered opinion evidence” in accordance with the Social Security regulations. Id. at 15. He ultimately concluded that although plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms . . . [his] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible.” Id. at 16. Specifically, the ALJ noted that plaintiff “is able to perform a wide and varied range of activities of daily living, ” that “treatment for his impairments has been routine and conservative, ” and that plaintiff “reported to his doctors that his [criminal record] is the main deterrent to his working.” Id. at 17.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ concluded, relying on the VE's testimony, that the plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined, based on the VE's testimony, “that, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity, the claimant is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. at 19. The VE had testified that the claimant could perform representative occupations such as cafeteria attendant, cleaner/housekeeper, and laundry worker. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled.

         C. The Appeal

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council, which denied review on December 15, 2015. The ALJ's decision then became the final decision of the Commissioner, and plaintiff brought ...

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