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Buckley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 28, 2017

JOHN F. BUCKLEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Defendant.


          George A. O'Toole, Jr. United States District Judge

         John F. Buckley appeals the denial of his application for Social Security Disability Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Before the Court are Buckley's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (dkt. no. 15) and the defendant's Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision (dkt. no. 19). After consideration of the administrative record and the parties' memoranda, the Court now affirms the Commissioner's decision because there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the decision and no error of law was made.

         I. Procedural History

         Buckley applied for DIB on March 12, 2013, and SSI on April 2, 2013, alleging disability beginning on November 20, 2010. (Administrative Tr. at 195, 197 [hereinafter “R.”].)[2] Buckley's applications were initially denied on May 3, 2013, (id. at 123, 126), and again after reconsideration on August 19, 2013. (Id. at 136, 139.) Buckley then requested a hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge Sean Teehan (hereinafter “ALJ”) on August 26, 2014. (Id. at 32.) On September 16, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Buckley was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). (Id. at 11-26.) Buckley's request for review of that decision was denied by the Appeals Council on January 20, 2016. (Id. at 1-7.) This denial rendered the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, and made the case suitable for review by this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Discussion

         This Court's review of a denial of Social Security benefits is limited to an evaluation as to 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 Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); accord Mickevich v. Barnhart, 453 F.Supp.2d 279, 284 (D.Mass. 2006). The evidence is considered substantial when it is “more than a mere scintilla, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and an ALJ's determination supported by substantial evidence must be upheld “even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion.” Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987) (citing Lizotte v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 654 F.2d 127, 128 (1st Cir. 1987)). Further, deciding issues of credibility is the “prime responsibility” of the ALJ. Rodriguez v. Celebrezze, 349 F.2d 494, 496 (1st Cir. 1965).

         On appeal, Buckley argues that the ALJ's decision should be overturned both for lack of substantial evidence in support of the decision and for legal error. Specifically, Buckley alleges that the following findings of the ALJ were not based on substantial evidence: that Buckley's impairments, while “severe, ” were limited to the conditions of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the right hip, and leg neuropathy rather than other more serious medical conditions; that Buckley does not have an impairment or combination of impairments equal in severity to one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, app. 1; that Buckley has the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, except that he could only sit for one hour at a time for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; that Buckley is capable of performing his past relevant work as a sales manager, as well as other sedentary work; and therefore that Buckley has not been under a disability as defined in the Act from November 20, 2010, through the date of the ALJ's decision. Buckley also argues that the aforementioned findings are based on an error of law because he failed to honor the requirement that he evaluate every medical opinion received. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).[3]

         The full administrative record is filed on the docket of this case, as is the written decision of the ALJ. There is no reason to recite the details of Buckley's medical history or his DIB and SSI application processes except as it is necessary to discuss the specific objections made to the ALJ's decision.

         A. Substantial evidence supports the finding that Buckley has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the right hip, and leg neuropathy

         Buckley contends that the ALJ violated 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) by not considering Hearing Exhibits #4F, #5F and #20F, which suggest medical conditions more serious than the “severe” impairments the ALJ found to exist.[4] Exhibit #4F consists of progress notes between December 7, 2009, and July 8, 2013, from the South Shore Health Center detailing Buckley's medical history over the course of that time period (hereinafter “Progress Notes”). (R. at 381-410.) Exhibit #5F is a letter dated January 7, 2010, from Dr. Sushil K. Basra to Dr. Robert Baratz, in which Buckley's spinal health and the possibility of surgical intervention are discussed (hereinafter “Dr. Basra's Letter”). (Id. at 411.) Exhibit #20F is a medical report from Shields MRI Technology for Life dated November 4, 2014, which discusses the findings of an MRI of Buckley's spine (hereinafter “Shields Report”). (Id. at 552-55.)

         The relevant regulation requires the SSA to evaluate every medical record it receives regarding a claimant's application. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). Contrary to Buckley's assertion, the record indicates that the ALJ evaluated both the Progress Notes and Dr. Basra's Letter, as they are referenced repeatedly in his decision. (R. at 20-23.)

         The ALJ was not able to evaluate the Shields Report because it was submitted after his decision in this matter. (R. at 5.) Nevertheless, the Appeals Council considered it and found that it did not provide a basis for changing the ALJ's decision. (Id.) The relevant regulation states that “we will evaluate” all relevant medical records, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c), and “we, ” in this context, refers to the SSA as a whole, including post-ALJ review by the Appeals Council. Id. § 404.1502. So, although the ALJ himself did not review the Shields Report because it was not available to him, it was evaluated by the Commissioner through the Appeals Counsel's consideration of Buckley's request for review. And, when the Appeals Council finds new evidence to be consistent with the existing record, it has the discretion to leave the ALJ's decision undisturbed. Mills v. Apfel, 244 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 2001). Moreover, the findings in Dr. Basra's Letter and the Shields Report are in fact very similar, both noting that Buckley has L5-S1 disc degeneration and Grade I spondylolisthesis with bilateral L5 pars fractures. (Compare R. at 411, with id. at 554.) Because of this similarity, the Appeals Council's conclusion that the Shields Report did not warrant changing the ALJ's decision is consistent with the record and was well within its discretion.

         As for the evidence used to arrive at the conclusion that Buckley's impairments were “severe” but not indicative of more serious medical conditions than identified by the ALJ, the ALJ appears to have considered the record in its entirety. There are a number of medical opinions and reports prepared by Buckley's treating physicians describing the stable maintenance of Buckley's health with a medication based treatment plan, (see, e.g., id. at 296, 299), along with reports prepared by doctors consulting for the Department of Disability Services (“DDS”) that indicate that Buckley was able to perform work and that thus support the denial of benefits. (Id. at 94-109.) Although the ALJ's finding that Buckley's impairments were not disabling might not have been the only conclusion which could have been reached, “the resolution of conflicts in the evidence and the determination of the ultimate question of disability is for [the Commissioner], not for the doctors or for the courts.” Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981) (citing Richardson, 402 U.S. at 399).

         Consequently, it is apparent that the ALJ's decision on this issue was not due to a failure to consider relevant medical records, nor was it due to an error by the Appeals Counsel in denying Buckley's request for review. Rather, the determination of the nature and extent of Buckley's impairments was based on substantial evidence.

         B. Substantial evidence supports the finding that Buckley does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments

         Buckley argues that because the Commissioner did not properly evaluate exhibit #19F, the finding that Buckley's impairments do not meet or equal one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R.

         Part 404, Subpart P, app. 1 is not supported by substantial evidence.[5] Exhibit #19F is a medical report dated August 11, 2014, which was prepared by Dr. Richard Fraser about two weeks before the ALJ hearing. (R. at 550-51.) The report concludes that Buckley was permanently disabled, and his spinal condition could be accurately characterized as a listed ...

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