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Brindley v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

January 29, 2016

Douglas W. Brindley
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, U.S. Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2016 DNH 021


Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge

Douglas Wayne Brindley is a fifty-three year old man with a history of shoulder issues, polysubstance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Brindley last worked, from 2004 until 2006, as a general laborer. Here, Brindley challenges the Social Security Administration’s denial of his claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental Social Security income (“SSI”). The Social Security Commissioner, in turn, seeks to have the ruling affirmed.


In accordance with Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts (Doc. No. 13). 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.


Pursuant to 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.


Brindley applied for DIB and SSI in May 2011, alleging disability as of November 2, 2006. Tr. at 147-61. After his claims were initially denied in May 2011, a hearing was held before an ALJ in September 2012. Tr. at 37-66 (hearing transcript). Following that hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding that Brindley was not disabled. Tr. at 24-33 (ALJ’s written decision).

In his decision, the ALJ evaluated Brindley’s claims under the five-step sequential process described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). The ALJ found at step one that Brindley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 9, 2009, the amended alleged onset date. Tr. at 26. At step two, the ALJ determined that Brindley had severe impairments of status post left rotator cuff repair, right shoulder impingement, polysubstance abuse, and depression with anxiety. Tr. at 26. The ALJ then found at step three that Brindley’s impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments, specifically considering listings 1.02, 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09. Tr. at 27-28. Finally, relying exclusively upon the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the “Grid”), the ALJ determined at step five that, despite his severe exertional and non-exertional impairments, Brindley had the residual functional capacity to perform work in the national economy. Tr. at 32. The ALJ therefore concluded that Brindley was not disabled. Tr. at 33.

In April 2014, the Appeals Council denied Brindley’s request for review. Tr. at 14-16. As such, the ALJ’s decision constitutes the Commission’s final decision, and this matter is now ripe for judicial review.

Brindley argues that a remand is required for two principal reasons: (1) the ALJ’s assessment of Brindley’s residual functional capacity, or RFC, is not supported by substantial evidence, and (2) the ALJ improperly relied upon the Grid at step five to find that Brindley was capable of performing other work in the national economy. For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that the ALJ’s use of the Grid was inappropriate, and that a remand is required.

At step five of the sequential process, “the burden shifts to the Secretary to show the existence of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform” despite his impairments. Guyton v. Apfel, 20 F.Supp.2d 156, 162 (D. Mass. 1998) (quotations omitted). Where the claimant has only exertional limitations, the Commissioner can meet that burden by relying on the Grid, a “matrix of the applicant's exertional capacity, age, education, and work experience. If the facts of the applicant's situation fit within the Grid's categories, the Grid directs a conclusion as to whether the individual is or is not disabled.” Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001) (quotations omitted).

In cases like this one, however, where a claimant suffers from both exertional and non-exertional limitations, the Commissioner typically cannot rely solely upon the Grid, and must instead use other means, usually a vocational expert, to meet her burden. Ortiz v. Sec’y of Health & Human ...

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