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Littlefield v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

February 17, 2015

Kenneth W. Littlefield,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration.


LANDYA McCAFFERTY, District Judge.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Kenneth Littlefield moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision to deny his application for Social Security disability insurance benefits, or DIB, under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423, and for supplemental security income, or SSI, under Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1382. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming her decision. For the reasons that follow, this matter is remanded to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this order.

I. Standard of Review

The applicable standard of review in this case provides, in pertinent part:

The [district] court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the [Acting] Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive....

42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (setting out the standard of review for DIB decisions); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (establishing § 405(g) as the standard of review for SSI decisions). However, the court "must uphold a denial of social security... benefits unless the [Acting Commissioner] has committed a legal or factual error in evaluating a particular claim.'" Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of HHS, 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (quoting Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 885 (1989)).

As for the statutory requirement that the Acting Commissioner's findings of fact be supported by substantial evidence, "[t]he substantial evidence test applies not only to findings of basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from such facts." Alexandrou v. Sullivan, 764 F.Supp. 916, 917-18 (S.D.N.Y. 1991) (citing Levine v. Gardner, 360 F.2d 727, 730 (2d Cir. 1966)). In turn, "[s]ubstantial evidence is more than [a] mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Currier v. Sec'y of HEW, 612 F.2d 594, 597 (1st Cir. 1980) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). But, "[i]t is the responsibility of the [Acting Commissioner] to determine issues of credibility and to draw inferences from the record evidence. Indeed, the resolution of conflicts in the evidence is for the [Acting Commissioner], not the courts." Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of HHS, 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir 1991) (citations omitted). Moreover, the court "must uphold the [Acting Commissioner's] conclusion, even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence." Tsarelka v. Sec'y of HHS, 842 F.2d 529, 535 (1st Cir. 1988). Finally, when determining whether a decision of the Acting Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, the court must "review[] the evidence in the record as a whole." Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769 (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of HHS, 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)).

II. Background

The parties have submitted a Joint Statement of Material Facts (document no. 16). That statement is part of the court's record and will be summarized here, rather than repeated in full.

In August of 2011, Littlefield applied for both DIB and SSI benefits. In his application, he claimed that he had stopped working in December of 2005 because of chronic lower-back pain. He claimed the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, post-lumbar-laminectomy syndrome, spinal-nerve scarring, chronic-pain syndrome, hypothyroidism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, anemia/leukocytosis, mood disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), anxiety with panic attacks, and side effects from numerous medications including narcotic pain medications.

Over the years, Littlefield has received the following diagnoses of his physical condition: disc herniation, lumbar strain, acute lumbar strain with sciatica, and chronic low-back pain. His treatment for those conditions has included: surgery (on two occasions), medication, [1] lumbar epidural steroid injections, facet-joint injections, radio-frequency lesioning, and use of a TENS unit.[2] Diagnoses of his mental condition include: PTSD, PTSD with a mix of mild to moderate anxiety and depression, and mood disorder not otherwise specified with both depression and anxiety. His treatment for those conditions has consisted largely of medication, [3] but he has also had some counseling.

In February of 2008, Littlefield began seeing Dr. Patrick Leong, who became his primary care physician ("PCP"). In March of 2009, Littlefield began seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Stein, for mental-health treatment. Those doctors, and others, have provided opinions on Littlefield's ability to work.

In October of 2008, Dr. Leong wrote a letter, addressed "[t]o whom it may concern, " that states:

Mr. Kenneth Littlefield has been a patient of mine for the past year. He is also under the care of [a] pain specialist and [a] surgeon. He is on multiple pain meds for his chronic back pain. Our recommendation is that he is unable to work until further evaluation and treatment.

Administrative Transcript ("Tr.") 482. In May of 2010, Dr. Leong wrote a second letter, also addressed "[t]o whom it may concern, " that states:

Kenneth has been a patient here for the past few years. Currently he is on multiple medications as follow: Depakone, Seroquel, Percocet, Methadone, and Robaxin. He is followed by [a] pain specialist and [a] psychiatrist for chronic pain and bipolar disorder.
At this time, he is unable to perform any meaningful work due to his medical conditions and multiple medications.

Tr. 117.

In October of 2011, Dr. Burton Nault, a state-agency nonexamining reviewing physician assessed Littlefield's physical residual functional capacity ("RFC").[4] In his assessment, Dr. Nault opined that Littlefield could: (1) occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds; (2) frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds; (3) stand and/or walk, with normal breaks, for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (4) sit on a sustained basis, with normal breaks, for a total of more than six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (5) push and/or pull without any limitation other than the restriction on lifting and/or carrying. See Tr. 137, 146. Dr. Nault further opined that Littlefield had no postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. See Tr. 138, 147.

On a referral by his PCP for an "evaluation of chronic pain and disability, " Tr. 841, Littlefield was seen by Dr. John Mazur, a neurologist. In the assessment section of his ...

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