United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
ORDER OPINION NO. 2015 DNH 010.
PAUL BARBADORO, District Judge.
John Marshall seeks judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for disability insurance benefits. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") below determined that Marshall could not work in jobs that impose strict production quotas but she later omitted that limitation when she asked the vocational expert to identify jobs in the national economy that Marshall could perform. For the reasons I discuss below, this omission requires a remand for further administrative proceedings.
Pursuant to this Court's Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a statement of stipulated facts which, because it is part of the Court's record (Doc. No. 9), need not be recounted in this Memorandum and Order. Facts relevant to the disposition of this matter are discussed below.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), I am authorized to review the pleadings submitted by the parties and the administrative record and enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the "final decision" of the Commissioner. My review "is limited to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts [based] upon the proper quantum of evidence." Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000).
Findings of fact made by the ALJ are accorded deference as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. Id . Substantial evidence to support factual findings exists "if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support his conclusion.'" Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (per curiam) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)). If the substantial evidence standard is met, factual findings are conclusive even if the record "arguably could support a different conclusion." Id. at 770. Findings are not conclusive, however, if they are derived by "ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts." Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam). The ALJ is responsible for determining issues of credibility and for drawing inferences from evidence in the record. Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769. It is the role of the ALJ, not the court, to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Id.
The ALJ denied Marshall's claim at Step Five of the sequential process prescribed by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Tr. at 23-24; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At that stage, the Commissioner must "demonstrate that there are jobs in the national economy that [the] claimant can perform" before she may find that the claimant is not disabled. Heggarty v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 990, 995 (1st Cir. 1991). For the Commissioner's denial of benefits to survive judicial review, substantial evidence must support her conclusion that such jobs exist. Rosado v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.2d 292, 293-94 (1st Cir. 1986).
Where, as here, a claimant's severe impairments are nonexertional, the Commissioner ordinarily meets her burden at Step Five by calling a vocational expert to testify. E.g., Heggarty, 947 F.2d at 996; Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 890 F.2d 520, 524 (1st Cir. 1989); Lugo v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 794 F.2d 14, 17 (1st Cir. 1986). A vocational expert's testimony, however, can furnish substantial evidence for the Commissioner's finding at Step Five that a claimant is not disabled only if the expert's testimony fully addresses the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") as determined by the ALJ prior to Step Four. As the First Circuit has explained, "in order for a vocational expert's answer to a hypothetical question to be relevant, the inputs into that hypothetical must correspond to conclusions that are supported by the outputs from the medical authorities." Arocho v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 670 F.2d 374, 375 (1st Cir. 1982); see also Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 123 (3d Cir. 2002); Aubeuf v. Schweiker, 649 F.2d 107, 114 (2d Cir. 1981); Sloan v. Astrue, 538 F.Supp.2d 152, 156 (D.D.C. 2008). That principle controls here.
The ALJ determined that Marshall's RFC included the
following four nonexertional limitations:
(1) That Marshall "should avoid hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery";
(2) That Marshall "would be limited to uncomplicated tasks, " or those "that can typically be ...