United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
WILLIAM G. YOUNG DISTRICT JUDGE
Sinclair (“Sinclair”) brings this action pursuant
to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
appealing the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security (“Commissioner”),  denying
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income (collectively, “disability benefits”).
Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 1. Sinclair alleges that substantial
evidence does not support the hearing
officer's decision, and the Commissioner's
subsequent affirmation of that denial constitutes legal
error. Id. ¶ 3.
Sinclair contests: (1) the Social Security Administration
Appeals Council's (“Appeals Council”) finding
that she did not have a medically determinable fibromyalgia
impairment, (2) the residual functional capacity
determination, and (3) the step-five conclusion that Sinclair
could perform other work. Mot. Reverse (Incorporated Mem.
Law) (“Pl.'s Mem.”) 5, 14, ECF No. 14. The
Commissioner argues that substantial evidence supports the
Appeals Council's conclusions, and thus asks this Court
to affirm the decision. Mem. Law Supp. Def.'s Mot. Affirm
Commissioner's Decision (“Def.'s Mem.”)
1, ECF No. 17. For the reasons explained below, the Court
remands this matter for further proceedings.
November 9, 2012, Sinclair applied for disability insurance
benefits, Administrative R. (“Admin.
R.”) 226-29, and supplemental security income,
id. at 230-40. Sinclair's applications were
initially denied on February 12, 2013, id. at
120-21, and again upon reconsideration on June 10, 2013,
id. at 148-55, 163-68. At Sinclair's request, a
hearing was held on June 17, 2014. Id. at 82-83. In
addition to Sinclair's testimony, id. at 44-70,
the hearing officer elicited testimony from a vocational
expert, id. at 70-77. Then, in a written decision
issued on September 26, 2014, the hearing officer found that
Sinclair is not disabled. Id. at 11-35.
November 24, 2014, Sinclair requested that the Appeals
Council review the hearing officer's decision.
Id. at 9-10. In anticipation of the Appeals
Council's review, Sinclair supplemented the record with
an affidavit from a vocational expert, David Meuse
(“Meuse”). Id. at 359-63. On March 17,
2016, the Appeals Council upheld the hearing officer's
decision and issued the Commissioner's final decision
denying Sinclair disability benefits. Id. at 1-8.
13, 2016, Sinclair filed a complaint in this Court seeking
judicial review of the Commissioner's denial. Compl. The
Commissioner filed an answer, Answer, ECF No. 11, and the
administrative record on September 23, 2016, Admin R.
Sinclair subsequently moved to reverse the Commissioner's
decision. Pl.'s Mem. 1. On January 13, 2017, the
Commissioner filed a motion to affirm the Commissioner's
decision and a supporting memorandum. Def.'s Mot. Affirm,
ECF No. 16; Def.'s Mem. 1. Sinclair responded to the
Commissioner's motion on February 27, 2017. Pl.'s
Resp. Def. Commissioner's Mot. Affirm (“Pl.'s
Resp.”), ECF No. 23. On March 10, 2017, this Court
heard oral arguments and took the matter under advisement.
Electronic Clerk's Notes, ECF No. 25
was born on November 18, 1967. Admin. R. 226, 230. She worked
as a tissue paper packer, id. at 22, 49, 354-55,
until April 15, 2007, when she was laid off, id. at
50-51, 226, 230, 257. Sinclair contends that the disabling
effects of her impairments contributed to her stopping work.
Id. at 257.
alleges that she suffers from a number of debilitating
conditions: degenerative changes of the lumbar, thoracic, and
cervical spine; radiculopathy; fibromyalgia; plantar
fasciitis; migraine headaches; gastroesophageal reflux
disorder; carpal tunnel syndrome; shoulder impairment; and
obesity. Id. at 257, 355-56; Pl.'s Mem. 1.
record includes opinions from Sinclair's treating
physicians, Dr. John Harrington (“Dr.
Harrington”), Admin. R. 562-63, and Dr. Danilo Funa
(“Dr. Funa”), id. at 853-56. Dr.
Harrington described Sinclair's limitations generally:
“She finds it very difficult . . . to get around due to
her back pain.” Id. at 562. Dr. Funa completed
a Medical Source Statement of Ability to Do Work-Related
Activities (Physical) form. Id. at 853-56. As Dr.
Funa's opinion is particularly significant to
Sinclair's appeal, the Court discusses this assessment in
Funa checked boxes on the Medical Source Statement form to
indicate the functional implications of Sinclair's
maladies. Based on those answers, Dr. Funa opined that
Sinclair could lift or carry less than ten pounds frequently
and up to ten pounds occasionally. Id. at 853. Dr.
Funa reported that Sinclair could stand or walk for less than
two hours in an eight-hour work day. Id. He also
indicated that Sinclair's condition(s) required her to
alternate periodically between sitting and standing.
Id. at 854. Due to shoulder pain, Sinclair had
limited ability to push or pull with her upper extremities.
Id. Dr. Funa marked that Sinclair's manipulative
abilities, including reaching overhead, were unlimited.
Id. at 855. Finally, Dr. Funa concluded that
Sinclair had no attention or concentration issues.
Id. Although the form asks physicians to explain and
“describe the factors that support” the
limitations selected -- specifically when physicians choose
the lowest exertional levels for lifting, carrying, standing,
and walking -- Dr. Funa did not elaborate on his opinions.
Id. at 853.
Standard of Review
Court is bound to uphold the final decision of the
Commissioner regarding disability benefits so long as the
Commissioner did not commit legal error and the
Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by
substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also
Manso-Pizarro v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs.,
76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996). Substantial evidence is
“more than a mere scintilla [of relevant evidence that]
a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks and citation
the role of the hearing officer, not this Court, “to
draw factual inferences, make credibility determinations, and
resolve conflicts in the evidence.” Woodie v.
Colvin, 190 F.Supp.3d 242, 246 (D. Mass. 2016) (citing
Irlanda Ortiz v. Secretary of Health & Human
Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991)); see also
Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir.
2001)(“[T]he responsibility for weighing conflicting
evidence, where reasonable minds could differ as to the
outcome, falls on the Commissioner and his designee . . . .
It does not fall on the reviewing court.” (citation
omitted)). Accordingly, the Court must affirm the
Commissioner's decision “even if the record
arguably could justify a different conclusion.”
Rodriguez Pagan v. Secretary of Health & Human
Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987). Questions of law,
however, are subject to de novo review. Seavey, 276
F.3d at 9.
Disability under the Social Security Act
the Social Security Act (“Act”), an individual is
disabled if she is unable “to engage in any substantial
gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable
physical or mental impairment which can be expected to . . .
last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The
Administration conducts a five-step sequential evaluation to
determine whether a claimant satisfies the Act's
definition of disabled:
(1) Whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
(2) Whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) Whether the impairment meets or medically equals an
impairment listed under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1, and meets the duration requirement;
(4) Whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity
to perform his past relevant work; and
(5) Whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing
any other work, considering the claimant's age,
education, and work experience.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920
(4)(i)-(v). The applicant bears the burden of proof for the
first four steps; the burden shifts to the Commissioner at
step five. Bowen v. Yucker, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5
(1987); Vega v. Colvin, 164 F.Supp.3d 249, 256 (D.
The Hearing Officer's Decision
hearing officer proceeded through the five-step sequential
analysis to determine whether Sinclair is entitled to
disability benefits. She found that Sinclair was insured
through December 31, 2012 and has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since April 2007, the date of alleged
disability onset. Id. at 17. At the second step, the
hearing officer found that Sinclair suffers from three severe
impairments: degenerative changes of her spine (lumbar,
thoracic, and cervical) with radiculopathy, plantar
fasciitis, and obesity. Id. The hearing officer also
acknowledged Sinclair's non-severe impairments:
headaches/ migraines, gastroesophageal reflux disorder, and
carpal tunnel syndrome, id., but determined that
Sinclair does not suffer from a medically determinable
impairment of fibromyalgia, id. at 19. At step
three, the hearing officer concluded that Sinclair does not
have an impairment, or combination of which, that equals the
severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 19-20.
continuing to step four, the hearing officer assessed
Sinclair's residual functional capacity. Id. at
20. The hearing officer determined that Sinclair had the
residual functional capacity to perform sedentary to light
work with the additional limitation that “she must
alter sitting and standing at will.” Id. at
20, 23. The hearing officer found that Sinclair could stand
and walk for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday, and
carry or lift up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds
frequently. Id. at 20. The hearing officer also
acknowledged that Sinclair could not reach overhead.
Id. Given Sinclair's residual functional
capacity, the hearing officer concluded that Sinclair was
unable to perform her past relevant work as a packer.
Id. at 33.
five, however, the hearing officer determined that there are
other jobs Sinclair could perform. Id. at 33-34, 72.
The hearing officer explained that a claimant with a
functional capacity for the full range of light work would
lead to a “not disabled” ruling, but
Sinclair's additional limitations required further
consideration as to what “other” work she could
perform. Id. at 34. As such, the hearing officer
posed three hypothetical scenarios to the vocational
expert. Id. at 71-75. All of the
hypotheticals accommodated the need to alternate between
sitting and standing at will. Id. Additionally, each
hypothetical individual could frequently lift and carry ten
pounds and occasionally twenty pounds. Id. In the
first hypothetical, the individual could sit, stand, and walk
for six hours, reach overhead occasionally, and climb stairs.
Id. at 72. According to the vocational expert, an
individual with those limitations could be an office helper,
information clerk, or inspector. Id. at 34, 72-73.
All of those positions, the expert explained, are light duty
jobs with a specific vocational preparation
(“SVP”) rating of one or two. Id. at 72-73.
The vocational expert also supplied job incident numbers
based on labor statistics to show that these jobs existed in
significant numbers nationally and locally. Id.
the first hypothetical to create a second scenario, the
hearing officer asked the vocational witness about an
individual who could stand or walk for up to two hours, could
not reach overhead, could occasionally stoop and climb
stairs, but could not crouch or kneel. Id. at 73.
The vocational expert opined that an individual with these
limitations could perform the positions of telephone clerk
(DOT 237.367-046), office clerk (DOT ...