United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
ZOBEL SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Anthony Sullivan appeals from a final decision by the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security (“the
Commissioner”) upholding the ruling of the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that rejected
his application for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in
concluding that his bilateral shoulder limitations were not
severe, and in failing to give appropriate weight to the
related medical opinion evidence.
filed an application for SSI on January 28, 2014. He
originally alleged disability as of November 2, 2003, but
later amended the onset date to the date of his 2014 SSI
application. His claim was first denied on July 2, 2014, and
again upon reconsideration on October 27, 2014. Plaintiff
requested a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing at which the
plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”)
testified was held on January 5, 2016.
Applicable Statutes and Regulations
receive SSI benefits, a claimant must be “unable to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment which .
. . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 1382c (a)(3)(A). The impairment “must be of such
severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work
but cannot, considering his age, education, and work
experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful
work which exists in the national economy.”
Id. § 1382c (a)(3)(B); see also 20
C.F.R. § 416.905(a).
analyzes whether a claimant is disabled using an established
“five-step sequential evaluation process.”
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). Under
this framework, the ALJ first determines whether the claimant
is currently engaging in substantial gainful work activity.
If not, at step two the ALJ then decides whether the claimant
has a “severe” medical impairment or impairments,
i.e. one that “significantly limits [the
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities, ” id. § 416.920(c). If the
claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, the ALJ
considers third whether the impairment or impairments meets
or equals an entry in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and meets the duration
requirement. If so, then the claimant is considered disabled.
If not, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, which is
“the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his]
limitations, ” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ
then moves to step four and determines whether the
claimant's RFC allows him to perform his past relevant
work. If the claimant has the RFC to perform his past
relevant work, then he is not disabled. If the claimant does
not, the ALJ decides, at step five, whether the claimant can
do other work in light of his RFC, age, education, and work
experience. If the claimant can, he is not considered
disabled; otherwise, he is. “Once the applicant has met
his or her burden at Step 4 to show that he or she is unable
to do past work due to the significant limitation, the
Commissioner then has the burden at Step 5 of coming forward
with evidence of specific jobs in the national economy that
the applicant can still perform.” Seavey v.
Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001); see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.912(b)(3),
The Initial Rejection and the ALJ's Decision
February 2, 2016, written decision structured around the
five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found
plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. At
the first step, he determined that plaintiff had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since January 28, 2014, the
date on which he filed his SSI application. Next, at step
two, he found that plaintiff has several severe impairments:
type II diabetes with peripheral neuropathy in the lower
extremities, lumbar degenerative disc disease with disc
protrusion at ¶ 3-L4 and bilateral L5-S1 radiculopathy,
obesity, anxiety disorder, and affective disorder.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the
ALJ nonetheless ruled that plaintiff “does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.”
at 23. Before moving to step four, the ALJ determined
the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform
light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except he could
lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds
frequently, and he could sit for 6 hours out of an 8 hour
workday, and stand or walk for 6 hours out of an 8 hour
workday. In addition, he could occasionally climb ramps or
stairs, but never ropes, ladders or scaffolds, and he could
occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl.
Furthermore, he could occasionally push and pull with the
bilateral lower extremities, and he should avoid even
moderate exposure to unprotected heights. Finally, he could
maintain concentration, persistence or pace on tasks up to a
specific vocational preparation of 3 (SVP 3), and he could
deal with minor changes in the workplace.
Id. at 24. The ALJ explained that he
“considered all symptoms and the extent to which these
symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the
objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” and
that he “also considered opinion evidence” in
accordance with the Social Security regulations. Id.
He ultimately concluded that although plaintiff's
“medically determinable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause the alleged symptoms . . . [his] statements
concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of
these symptoms are not entirely credible.” Id.
fourth step, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff is unable
to perform any past relevant work. But at step five, the ALJ
determined, based on the VE's testimony, “that,
considering the claimant's age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that the claimant can perform.” Id. at 33. The
VE testified that the claimant could perform representative
occupations such as order filler, cashier, electrical
assembler, and merchandise tagger. Crediting this testimony,
the ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled.
appealed the ALJ's decision to the Social Security
Administration's Appeals Council, which denied review on
February 6, 2017. The ALJ's decision then became the
final decision of the Commissioner, and plaintiff brought