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Rai v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

January 14, 2016

Mamata Rai
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, U.S. Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2016 DNH 013



Mamata Rai challenges the Social Security Administration’s denial of her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming her decision. For the reasons that follow, I reverse the decision of the Acting Commissioner and remand for further administrative proceedings.


In accordance with Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts (Doc. No. 14). See LR 9.1. Because that joint statement is part of the court’s record, I need not recount it here. I discuss facts relevant to the disposition of this matter as necessary below.


Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), I have the authority to review the pleadings submitted by the parties and the administrative record, and to enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the “final decision” of the Commissioner. That review is limited, however, “to determining whether the [Administrative Law Judge] 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). I defer to the Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ’s) findings of fact, so long as those findings are supported by substantial evidence. Id. Substantial evidence 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, the ALJ’s factual findings are conclusive, even where the record “arguably could support a different conclusion.” Id. at 770. Findings are not conclusive, however, if the ALJ derived his findings 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.


Mamata Rai is a former refugee from Nepal who was 19 years old in June 2012, when she filed for SSI benefits. Doc. No. 11 at 1-2. Rai filed for SSI on June 19, 2012, claiming disability as of that day.[1] Id. The Social Security Administration denied Rai’s SSI application, and in October 2013 a hearing was held before ALJ Dory Sutker. Id. Following that hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Rai’s application. Tr. at 16-25 (ALJ’s written decision).

In her decision, the ALJ found at step one that Rai had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 19, 2012, Rai’s alleged onset date. Tr. at 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Rai suffered from heart and thyroid-related severe impairments.[2] Tr. at 19. At step three, however, the ALJ determined that Rai’s impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in the relevant regulations. Tr. at 19. The ALJ then found that Rai retained the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with certain restrictions, such as not climbing ladders, avoiding fumes and odors, and limiting her work to “uncomplicated tasks such as those that typically can be learned in thirty days or less.” Tr. at 19. The ALJ also noted that Rai “would have unscheduled absences of not more than 1 day per month” due to her condition. Tr. at 19. At step four, the ALJ found that Rai had no past relevant work experience. Tr. at 24. She also concluded that Rai “has a limited education and is able to communicate in English.” Tr. at 24. Lastly, at step five, the ALJ consulted a vocational expert and used the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the “Grid”) to conclude that jobs existed in the national economy that Rai could perform - and therefore Rai was not disabled. Tr. at 24-25.

Rai requested review of the ALJ’s decision, but in December 2014, the Appeals Council denied her request. Tr. at 1. As a result, the ALJ’s decision constitutes the Commission’s final decision, and this case is now ripe for review.

Rai filed this appeal in May 2015, asserting two challenges to the ALJ’s decision. First, she claims that the ALJ failed to develop vocational evidence addressing Rai’s English language limitations, and improperly concluded that Rai was “able to communicate in English.” Second, Rai argues that the ALJ erred in assessing the importance of her unexcused absences from school. I find Rai’s first argument - that the ALJ improperly assessed Rai’s English skills - persuasive, and conclude that the ALJ’s determination of Rai’s language capabilities was conclusory and insufficiently supported by the evidence. As a result, a remand is warranted.

The ALJ bears the burden at step five of proving that jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Heggarty v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 990, 995 (1st Cir. 1991). To carry her burden, the ALJ must consider the claimant’s RFC and her “age, education, and work experience.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). “Education” includes “how well [claimants] are able to communicate in English since this ability is often acquired or improved by education.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.964(b). “Because English is the dominant language of the country, it may be difficult for someone who doesn't speak and understand English to do a job, regardless of the amount of education the person may have in another language.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.964(b)(5). The ALJ, therefore, must “consider a person’s ability to communicate in English when [the ALJ] evaluate[s] what work, if any, he or she can do.” Id.; see Lugo v. Chater, 932 F.Supp. 497, 502 (S.D.N.Y 1996) (Sotomayor, J.) (“Before slotting a claimant into a particular grid rule, however, the ALJ must first determine whether the claimant is conversant and literate in English.”) (citing Vega v. Harris, 636 F.2d 900, 903-904 (2d Cir. 1981)).[3]

Here, the issue of Rai’s language limitations arose numerous times in the record and at the hearing. In a questionnaire submitted to the SSA, Rai’s English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher Genevieve Munoz noted that Rai’s “English is not very good and she does not understand much.” Tr. at 166. Munoz indicated that as a “familiar listener, ” she could only understand Rai 1/2 to 2/3 of the time when the topic of conversation was known, and no more than 1/2 of the time when the topic was unknown. Tr. at ...

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