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Greenaway v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 27, 2019

RICHARD BRUCE GREENAWAY, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION (Docket Nos. 14 & 16)

          KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         Richard Bruce Greenaway, Jr., (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking review of a final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner's decision denying him such benefits - memorialized in a June 17, 2016 decision by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) - is in error. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by not assessing his cervicalgia as a severe impairment. Plaintiff has moved for judgment on the pleadings requesting that the Commissioner's decision be reversed, or in the alternative, remanded for further proceedings (Dkt. No. 14). The Commissioner has moved for an order affirming the decision of the Commission (Dkt. No. 16). The parties have consented to this court's jurisdiction (Dkt. No. 13). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. For the reasons stated below, the court will grant the Commissioner's motion for an order affirming the Commissioner's decision and deny Plaintiff's motion.

         II. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on July 11, 2014, alleging a June 20, 2014 onset due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and depression.[1] His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. He requested a hearing before an ALJ, and one was held on May 5, 2016. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued his decision on June 17, 2016, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying his claims. The Appeals Council denied review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. This appeal followed.

         III. Legal Standards

         A. Standard for Entitlement to DIB and SSI

         In order to qualify for DIB and SSI, a claimant must demonstrate that he is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A claimant is disabled for purposes of DIB and SSI if he “is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or 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), 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity when 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Commissioner evaluates a claimant's impairment under a five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in the regulations promulgated by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v).[2] The hearing officer must determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1 to the regulations; (4) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing previous relevant work; and (5) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing any work considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. Id; see also Goodermote v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6-7 (1st Cir. 1982) (describing the five-step process). If the hearing officer determines at any step of the evaluation that the claimant is or is not disabled, the analysis does not continue to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         Before proceeding to steps four and five, the Commissioner must make an assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which the Commissioner uses at step four to determine whether the claimant can do past relevant work and at step five to determine if the claimant can adjust to other work in the national economy. Id.

RFC is what an individual can still do despite his or her limitations. RFC is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities.

         Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996).

         The claimant has the burden of production and proof through step four of the analysis, including the burden to demonstrate RFC. Flaherty v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 11-11156-TSH, 2013 WL 4784419, at *8 (D. Mass. Sept. 5, 2013) (citing Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001)). At step five, the Commissioner has the burden of showing the existence of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform notwithstanding his or her restrictions and limitations. Goodermote, 690 F.2d at 7.

         B. Standard of Review

         The district court may enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the final decision of the Commissioner, with or without remanding for rehearing. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review “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 court reviews questions of law de novo, but “the ALJ's findings shall be conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence, and must be upheld ‘if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support his conclusion,' even if the record could also justify a different conclusion.” Applebee v. Berryhill, 744 Fed.Appx. 6, 6 (1st Cir. 2018) (mem.) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222-23 (1st Cir. 1981) (citations omitted)). “Substantial-evidence review is more deferential than it might sound to the lay ear: though certainly ‘more than a scintilla' of evidence is required to meet the benchmark, a preponderance of evidence is not.” Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 13 (1st Cir. 2018) (quoting Bath Iron Works Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 336 F.3d 51, 56 (1st Cir. 2003)). In applying the substantial evidence standard, the court must be mindful that it is the province of the ALJ, and not the courts, to determine issues of credibility, resolve conflicts in the evidence, and draw conclusions from such evidence. See Applebee, 744 Fed.Appx. at 6. That said, the ALJ may not ignore evidence, misapply the law, or judge matters entrusted to experts. Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam).

         IV. Relevant Facts

         A. Plaintiff's Background

         Plaintiff was 37 on the date of his hearing before the ALJ. He had at least a high school education and lived with his wife and two young children. He had not worked since June 20, 2014, the alleged onset date. Prior to June 2014, he had worked as a ...


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