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Carleton v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

April 29, 2016

Bruce T. Carleton
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, U.S. Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2016 DNH 087

Christine Woodman Casa, Esq.

Michael T. McCormack, Esq.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge

Bruce Carleton challenges the Social Security Administration’s denial of his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming the decision. Because the ALJ ignored the requirements of SSR 83-20 and failed to call a medical advisor to determine the onset date of Carleton’s disability, I determine that his decision was not supported by substantial evidence. As a result, I grant Carleton’s motion and remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum and Order.

I. BACKGROUND

In accordance with Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts (Doc. No. 11). 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.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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.

III. ANALYSIS

Bruce T. Carleton is a former laborer, pipefitter, power washer, boiler worker, and working foreman. Doc. No. 11 at 2. He was 48 years old on December 31, 2005, his date last insured. Id. Carleton filed for DIB on August 13, 2012, claiming disability as of June 15, 2003. Id. at 1. The Social Security Administration denied his application, and in January 2014 a hearing was held before ALJ Jonathan Baird. Id. Following that hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Carleton’s application. Tr. at 68-76 (ALJ’s written decision).

The ALJ based his ruling on a determination that Carleton was not disabled prior to his date last insured, but made no finding of present disability. To arrive at this conclusion, the ALJ employed the familiar five-step analysis described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, he found that Carleton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between June 15, 2003, his alleged onset date, and December 31, 2005, his date last insured. Tr. at 70. At step two, the ALJ determined that Carleton suffered from “degenerative disc disease with associated right leg symptoms, ” through his date last insured. Tr. at 70. The ALJ further noted that Carleton’s condition was a “severe impairment, ” but at step three determined that the impairment did not meet or medically equal any of those listed in the relevant regulations. Tr. at 70-71. The ALJ then decided that Carleton retained the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with certain restrictions, such as only occasionally climbing ramps or stairs and avoiding concentrated exposure to excessive vibration. Tr. at 71. Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Carleton could not perform his past relevant work. Tr. at 74. Lastly, at step five, the ALJ consulted a vocational expert and concluded that Carleton could find work in the national economy as a price marker, order caller, or ticket seller, despite his limitations. Tr. at 75. The ALJ therefore concluded that Carleton was not disabled as of his date last insured. Tr. at 76.

Carleton requested review of the ALJ’s decision, but in May 2015 the Appeals Council denied his request. Tr. at 1-4. As a result, the ALJ’s decision constitutes the Commission’s final decision, and this case is now ripe for review.

Carleton makes four general arguments challenging the ALJ’s decision. First, Carleton argues that the ALJ ignored medical evidence in his file that supported his claim. Second, he claims that the ALJ wrongly concluded that his testimony at the hearing was not credible. Third, he criticizes various aspects of the ALJ’s instructions to the vocational expert, who testified that Carleton could perform certain jobs in the national economy despite his limitations. And fourth, Carleton argues that the ALJ violated Social Security Ruling 83-20 by failing to consult a ...


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