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Mitchell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 28, 2017

CHARLES MITCHELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Denise J. Casper, United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Charles Mitchell (“Mitchell”) filed claims for disability insurance benefits (“SSDI”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). R. at 8.[2] 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.

         II. Factual Background

         Mitchell 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.

         III. Procedural Background

         Mitchell 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.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standards

         1. Entitlement to SSDI and SSI

         The 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.

         2. Standard of Review

         The 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. 1987)).

         To the 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).

         B. Before the ALJ

         1. Medical History

         a) Back Pain

         Mitchell's 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.

         Mitchell 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. at 346-47.

         In 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.

         In 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.

         b) Alcohol and Substance Abuse

         Mitchell 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.

         Mitchell's 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 daily ...


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