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Leggett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

December 1, 2017

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


          Judith Gail Dein, United States Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff, Dasean Louis Leggett (“Leggett”), has brought this action pursuant to sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), in order to challenge the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying Leggett's claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. The matter is presently before the court on the plaintiff's “Motion to Reverse” (Docket No. 22) by which Leggett is seeking an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding the matter to the Social Security Administration for a new hearing. The matter is also before the court on the defendant's “Motion for Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner” (Docket No. 27) by which the Commissioner is seeking an order upholding her decision that the plaintiff is not disabled and is therefore not entitled to SSI benefits. The principle issues raised by the parties' motions are whether the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) determination of Leggett's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) was based on substantial evidence regarding both his physical and mental impairments, and whether the Commissioner failed to provide evidence that there exists work in significant numbers in the national economy that Leggett can perform.

         As described below, this court finds that the ALJ committed error when determining Leggett's RFC by failing to provide an adequate explanation for his rejection of an opinion of Dr. Fischer, a state agency non-examining consultant, that Leggett is limited to work in an “unpressured setting.” This court also finds that the ALJ erred when determining Leggett's RFC by failing to consider a finding of disability made by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This court finds that the ALJ did not otherwise err in determining Leggett's RFC with respect to his hand impairment. However, the errors with regard to Dr. Fischer's opinion and the Commonwealth's disability finding warrant remand for further administrative proceedings.

         This court also finds that the Commissioner failed to establish that there was work in significant numbers that Leggett can perform. The Vocational Expert (“VE”) found that Leggett was qualified to do three types of jobs. Of these, two no longer exist and the third requires functions that obviously conflict with Leggett's RFC. The ALJ's failure to explain this conflict further requires that this matter be remanded. Accordingly, and for all the reasons detailed herein, the Commissioner's motion to affirm is DENIED and the plaintiff's motion to reverse is ALLOWED.


Leggett was born on January 5, 1987, and was 25 years old at the time of the first hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 27, 32). He completed ninth grade, and during his schooling attended special education classes. (Tr. 142, 603). His work history consists of some “under-the-table” jobs including landscaping and yard work. (Tr. 607). He lives with his girlfriend and her son. (Tr. 614-15). Leggett has three children who live with their mothers. (Tr. 601-02). Leggett claims that he has been disabled from working since June 22, 2010 due to a back disorder, a hand impairment, and depression. (Tr. 16).

         Procedural History

         On June 23, 2010, Leggett filed an application for SSI, claiming that he had been unable to work since June 22, 2010 due to a back disorder, a hand impairment, and depression. (Tr. 14, 16). His applications were denied initially on September 14, 2010, and upon reconsideration on July 27, 2011. (Tr. 27-28, 32). Leggett then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ, which took place on August 29, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Tr. 32). The plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.). On September 19, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Leggett's claims for benefits. (Tr. 32-40).

         Subsequently, Leggett filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Social Security Appeals Council. (Tr. 78-79). The Appeals Council granted Leggett's request for review, and on January 7, 2014 remanded the matter to the ALJ for further evaluation of the record. (Tr. 41-45). Following the remand, a hearing was held on December 2, 2014 before a different ALJ. (Tr. 14). The plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.). The ALJ also obtained testimony from a VE who responded to hypothetical questions that were designed to determine whether jobs exist in the national and regional economies for an individual with the same age, educational background, work experience and RFC as the plaintiff. (Tr. 14, 596, 631-37).

         On January 30, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Leggett's claims for benefits. (Tr. 14-26). On March 17, 2015, Leggett appealed the decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review on April 4, 2016, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review. (Tr. 6-10). Accordingly, the plaintiff has exhausted all of his administrative remedies and the case is ripe for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ concluded that from June 23, 2010 through the date of his decision on January 30, 2015, Leggett “ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, ” which defines “disability” as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” (Dec. Finding #10; Tr. 14, 26). See also 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). There is no dispute that the ALJ, in reaching his decision that Leggett was not disabled, performed the five-step sequential evaluation required by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. The procedure resulted in the following analysis, which is further detailed in the ALJ's “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.” (See Dec. 3-13; Tr. 16-26).

         The first inquiry in the five-step evaluation process is whether the claimant is “engaged in substantial gainful work activity[.]” Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). If so, the claimant is automatically considered not disabled and the application for benefits is denied. See id. In this case, the ALJ found that Leggett had not engaged in such activity since June 23, 2010, the application date for SSI benefits. (Dec. Finding #1; Tr. 16). Therefore, he proceeded to the second step in the sequential analysis.

         The second inquiry is whether the claimant has a “severe impairment, ” meaning an “impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is deemed not to be disabled and the application for benefits is denied. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Here, however, the ALJ determined that Leggett suffered from the severe impairments of back disorder, depression, and hand impairment/abscesses. (Dec. Finding #2; Tr. 16). Because he found that the plaintiff had an impairment that was severe, the ALJ's analysis continued.

         The third inquiry is whether the claimant has an impairment equivalent to a specific list of impairments contained in Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations, in which case the claimant would automatically be found disabled. See Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). At this step, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments. (Dec. Finding #3; Tr. 16-17). Consequently, he proceeded to step four.

         The fourth inquiry asks whether “the applicant's ‘residual functional capacity' is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work[.]” Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Thus, in order to answer this inquiry, the ALJ must first make an assessment regarding the claimant's RFC. In the instant case, the ALJ assessed Leggett's RFC as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a)[3] except that the claimant has a basic ability to read and write in English, can understand posted signs and warnings, keep and maintain lists and sign-in sheets. He should not provide, interpret or receive written instructions. He has a basic ability to perform mathematical functions including taking money and making change. After every twenty to thirty minutes, the claimant needs the freedom to briefly stretch. The claimant is able to finger, grasp and manipulate. However, he is restricted to grasping to no more than one third out of an eight hour day. He should not be exposed to extreme hot and extreme cold temperatures. He should avoid climbing ladders. The claimant would not be able to perform complex tasks. He could perform one to four step repetitive tasks. He is able to work without supervision. He should not work in tandem with co-workers but is able to have casual contact and be in the same facility, same building and same room. He is able to deal with the public but could not decipher or provide written instructions. He is not able to have contact with the public where he would have to provide or receive information.

(Dec. Finding #4; Tr. 17-18 (footnote added)). Leggett challenges this finding as not based on substantial evidence.

         In reaching his conclusion regarding the plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ first considered all of Leggett's symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms were consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (Dec. Finding #4; Tr. 18). Accordingly, the ALJ reviewed the plaintiff's medical records, which consisted of records covering the time period from July 2009 through April 2014. (See Dec. 6-11; Tr. 19-24). He also considered the available opinion evidence, as well as statements that Leggett had made at the hearing regarding his symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms interfered with his ability to carry out day-to-day activities. (Dec. 5-6; Tr. 18-19). Because the ALJ found that Leggett's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms, he went on to determine whether Leggett's subjective statements about the limiting effects of his symptoms were credible in light of the entire ...

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