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Cameron v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

February 4, 2019

PAUL CAMERON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.




         Paul Lawrence Cameron, Jr. (“Cameron”) seeks judicial review, pursuant to section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his claim for Social Security disability insurance benefits. Pl.'s Compl. (“Compl.”), ECF No. 1; Pl.'s Mot. Reverse (Incorporated Mem. Law) (“Pl.'s Mem.”) 2, ECF No. 14.

         Cameron argues that the hearing officer's decision, which the Appeals Council's denial of review made final, [1] lacks substantial evidence and thus amounts to legal error. Pl.'s Mem. 4, 10. First, Cameron asserts that the hearing officer erred in his determination at step four of the disability evaluation that Cameron was capable of work as a machine packager, which Cameron submits does not reflect his prior work. Id. at 4-10. Second, he argues that the hearing officer erred by ignoring another hearing officer's determination of Cameron's residual functional capacity in an earlier disability benefits adjudication. Id. at 10-11.

         A. Procedural History

         Cameron first applied for disability insurance benefits from the Social Security Administration on February 22, 2011, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009. Administrative R. Social Security Proceedings (“Admin. R.”) 69, ECF No. 13. The Social Security Administration denied his application on August 10, 2011, again upon reconsideration on February 10, 2012, and a third time after a hearing before hearing officer Constance Carter (“Hearing Officer Carter”) on December 20, 2012. Id. at 66-79. The Appeals Council upheld Hearing Officer Carter's decision on April 17, 2013. Id. at 62.

         Cameron filed for disability insurance benefits again on June 19, 2014, this time alleging disability beginning April 1, 2009 (later amended to the day following Hearing Officer Carter's unfavorable decision, December 21, 2012), with a date last insured of June 30, 2013. Id. at 21. The Social Security Administration denied this application in September 2014, again on reconsideration in December 2014, and once again after a hearing before the present hearing officer in May 2016. Id. at 21, 34. At this more recent hearing, the hearing officer heard testimony from Cameron, who was represented by counsel, and James Sarno (“Sarno”), a vocational expert. Id. at 39-61. The hearing officer denied Cameron's application at step four of the sequential disability analysis, finding that Cameron retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past relevant work. Id. at 34; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565. The Appeals Council denied Cameron's request for review, Admin. R. 1-7, making that decision final and ripe for judicial review, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Cameron filed a complaint with this Court on September 21, 2017 seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits. Compl., ECF No. 1. The Commissioner filed an answer and the administrative record on December 12, 2017. Def.'s Answer, ECF No. 12; Admin. R., ECF No. 13. Both parties then filed motions (Cameron, to reverse, and the Commissioner, to affirm) and accompanying memoranda. See Pl.'s Mem.; Def.'s Mot. Order Affirming Decision Commissioner, ECF No. 19; Mem. Law Supp. Def.'s Mot. Affirm (“Def.'s Mem.”), ECF No. 20. This Court heard oral argument on the motions on July 23, 2018 and took the matter under advisement. Electronic Clerk's Notes, ECF No. 31.

         B. Factual Background

         Cameron was born on January 14, 1969 and completed schooling through the twelfth grade. Admin. R. 170. Cameron has suffered from depression, anxiety, lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, hallux limitus (stiff big toe joint), and irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”). Id. at 24, 29.

         This section outlines the facts relevant to the issues raised here, regarding Cameron's prior work and the two hearing officers' RFC findings.

         1. Cameron's Prior Work

         While Cameron listed in his Work History Report at least eight different jobs he held in the fifteen years prior to the onset of his alleged disability, id. at 187, the hearing officer considered only one of them relevant to the prior work standard, id. at 42-47. This was Cameron's job at an adhesive factory, which he obtained through an agency called Resource Connection and held between 2003 and 2006. Id. at 44, 187.

         As Cameron described it, in this role he:

[p]ushed carts w[ith] raw glue trays 10-20 ft. to grinding machine, use[d] lift assist to put glue slabs on conveyer belt to grind glue into 1, 000 lb[.] totes. [Used] forklift to move totes on to pallets, lifted totes w[ith] forklift to blending machine, after blending move[d] pallet w[ith] totes to the drying machine, vacuumed around glue into dryer, sometimes package[d] glue in 30-50 lb[.] boxes or bags, put on pallet, moved pallet w[ith] forklift to warehouse.

Id. at 190.

         During the second hearing on May 11, 2016, Cameron had the following colloquy with the hearing officer regarding this role:

CAMERON: One department made the glue, and the department that I was in, I ground the glue. I was operating the machine, blending it, and drying it and packaging it.
HEARING OFFICER: And did you operate a machine to do that? The machine did all of those things for you?
HEARING OFFICER: But you controlled the machine?
HEARING OFFICER: Okay. And that was a sit-down, stand-up job?
CAMERON: Stand-up.
HEARING OFFICER: Standing up a lot. And any lifting involved? Approximate amount of weight?
CAMERON: During packaging, it was either 30- to 50-pound packages.

Id. at 44-45.

         Later in the hearing, Sarno characterized Cameron's past work according to the classifications in the Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). Id. at 58. He described Cameron's role at the adhesive factory as a “machine packager” and classified it as an unskilled position with a Specific Vocational Preparation (“SVP”) of two and a medium exertional level. Id. ...

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