United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
J. Casper, United States District Judge
Charles Mitchell (“Mitchell”) filed claims for
disability insurance benefits (“SSDI”) and
supplemental security income (“SSI”) with the
Social Security Administration (“SSA”). R. at
Pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§
405(g), 1383(c)(3), Mitchell brings this action for judicial
review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of
the SSA (“Commissioner”), D. 1, issued by
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Paul W. Goodale
on September 26, 2014, R. at 20. Before the Court is
Mitchell's motion to reverse and remand the ALJ's
decision denying SSDI and SSI benefits, D. 16, and the
Commissioner's motion to affirm the ALJ's decision,
D. 19. For the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES
Mitchell's motion to reverse and GRANTS the
Commissioner's motion to affirm.
was 33 years old on his alleged onset date of January 1,
2005. R. at 346. Mitchell has a date last insured of December
31, 2012. R. at 73. He applied for SSDI and SSI benefits on
the grounds that the following conditions render him unable
to work: depression, back injury, stress and partial
blindness in the right eye. R. at 87.
applied for SSDI and SSI benefits on or about May 9, 2013 and
June 22, 2013, respectively. R. at 240; R. at 252. After
initial review, Mitchell was denied SSDI and SSI benefits on
September 16, 2013 and September 11, 2013, respectively. R.
at 83; R. at 97. Mitchell was also denied SSDI and SSI
benefits upon reconsideration on November 15, 2013 and filed
a timely request for an ALJ hearing. R. at 179; R. at 182.
This hearing was held on August 14, 2014. R. at 8. Because
the Appeals Council denied review, the ALJ's decision
constituted the final decision of the Commissioner with
respect to Mitchell's claim. R. at 1-3.
Entitlement to SSDI and SSI
Social Security regulations define disability as the
“inability to do any substantial gainful activity by
reason of any medically determinable physical or mental
impairment which can be expected to result in death or has
lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of
not less than 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).
The disability must be severe, rendering the claimant unable
to perform any previous work or any other substantial gainful
activity for which the claimant is qualified and exists in
the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a),
404.1511. The Social Security regulations set out a five-step
process that the Commissioner must use when determining
whether an individual has a disability. 20 C.F.R. §
416.920. First, if the applicant is engaged in any
substantial gainful activity, then the applicant is found
“not disabled.” Id. Second, if the
applicant does not have, or has not had within the relevant
time period, a severe impairment or combination of
impairments, then the applicant is found “not
disabled.” Id. Third, if the impairment meets
the conditions for one of the “listed”
impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the
applicant is found “disabled.” Id.
Fourth, if the applicant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) renders them able to perform past
relevant work, then the applicant is found “not
disabled.” Id. Fifth, if the applicant, given
their RFC, education, work experience and age, is unable to
do any other work that exists in the national economy, then
he is found disabled.” Id.
Standard of Review
Court may affirm, modify or reverse a decision of the
Commissioner upon review of the pleadings and record. 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). This review, however, 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 ALJ's findings of
fact are conclusive so long as they are supported by
substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla and
such, as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support [the Commissioner's] conclusion.”
Camacho Lorenzo v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
278 F.Supp.2d 211, 214 (D.P.R. 2003) (quoting Richardson
v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see Rodriguez
v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218,
222 (1st Cir. 1981). The Court must adhere to these findings
of fact “even if the record arguably could justify a
different conclusion.” Whitzell v. Astrue, 792
F.Supp.2d 143, 148 (quoting Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y
of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir.
contrary, the ALJ's findings of fact “are not
conclusive when derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the
law, or judging matters entrusted to experts.”
Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999)
(citations omitted). If the ALJ made a legal or factual
error, this Court may reverse or remand such decision with
instruction to consider new material evidence or to apply the
correct legal standard. Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of
Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir.
1996) (citation and quotations omitted); see 42
U.S.C. § 405(g).
Before the ALJ
medical records reveal that he is a long-time sufferer of
lower back pain. R. at 347-48. He first sought treatment for
his back pain as early as October 2010 at the Boston Medical
Center (“BMC”). R. at 444-45. At that time, he
attributed the pain to motion and extension following an
attempt to get out of bed. R. at 446. The examining nurse
noted that Mitchell was “ambulatory with steady
gait” and seemed comfortable, but he described his back
pain as “sharp” and rated it a ten on a scale of
zero to ten. R. at 445.
again sought treatment at the BMC for back spasms following
an airplane ride in June 2011 and was prescribed Flexeril and
Motrin. R. at 468-69. He reported that he suffered similar
back spasms when working at U-Haul five years prior.
Id. Mitchell also made visits to the BMC for his
lower back pain in February 2012, July 2012 and June 2013. R.
October 2013, Dr. Xihuan Yan ordered x-rays of Mitchell's
lower back, which showed “minimal degenerative changes
of the lumbar spine characterized by facet hypertrophy at
¶ 4-5, L5-S1.” R. at 535. Dr. Yan noted that these
results did not raise any “red flags, ” but
referred Mitchell to physical therapy to remedy his lower
back pain. R. at 542.
April 2014, Dr. Brian McGeeney ordered a magnetic resource
imaging (“MRI”) of Mitchell's back. R. at
551. The results showed “mild facet degenerative
changes” and “mild neural foraminal
narrowing” at ¶ 3-L4. Id. They also
revealed, at ¶ 4-L5, “a large broad based-disc
bulge, ” “mild facet degenerative changes”
and “crowding of the subarticular recess…with
impingement of the traversing L5 nerve roots.” R. at
551-52. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell was given a steroid
injection. R. at 555.
Alcohol and Substance Abuse
also has a history of alcohol and substance abuse, which was
documented during visits to the BMC between 2009 and 2013.
See, e.g., R. at 400-01; R. 408-09; R. 472; R. 493.
On January 21, 2009, Mitchell presented to the emergency room
at the BMC due to an assault and the nurse noted that he had
alcohol in his system. R. at 376-78. Mitchell reported that
he drank alcohol daily and smoked marijuana. R. at 377-78.
history of alcohol and substance abuse was also noted on
April 19, 2009. R. at 381-82. He went to the BMC complaining
of a sore throat and vomiting and was diagnosed with
“poisoning - food unspecified.” R. at 381; R.
383. During his examination, he stated that he drinks alcohol