United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS
REGARDING DENIAL OF SUPPLEMENTAL SECURITY INCOME
Gail Dein, United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
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
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.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).
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
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
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.
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) 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.
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 ...