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Chigas v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 6, 2016

Matthew Chigas
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Opinion No. 2016 DNH 094

          ORDER

          Landya McCafferty United States District Judge

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Matthew Chigas moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner’s decision to deny his applications 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 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) (per curiam) (quoting Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 885 (1989)).

         II. Background

         The parties have submitted a Joint Statement of Material Facts. That statement, document no. 11, is part of the court’s record and will be summarized here, rather than repeated in full.

         Chigas stopped working in January of 2004. His last job was as a truck mechanic.

         Chigas has an extensive record of seeking medical treatment, typically in hospital emergency rooms, for back pain and headaches. He was last insured for DIB on March 31, 2009. In September of 2011, he applied for both DIB and SSI, claiming August 14, 2008, as the onset date of his disability.

         The Disability Determination Explanation ("DDE") form associated with Chigas’s claim for DIB notes that "[t]here is no indication that there is [any] medical or other opinion evidence." Administrative Transcript (hereinafter "Tr.") 111. That form also observes that "[n]o RFC . . . assessments are associated with this claim."[1] Id. The DDE form concludes with the following Personalized Decision Notice ("PDN"):

In order to be entitled for benefits, your condition must be found to be severe prior to 03/31/2009, when you were last insured for disability benefits. The evidence in file is not sufficient to fully evaluate your claim and the evidence needed cannot be obtained. We have determined your condition was not disabling on any date through 03/31/2009, when you were last insured for disability benefits. In deciding this, we considered the medical records, your statements, and how your condition affected your ability to work.

         Tr. 112.

         Like the DDE form associated with Chigas’s claim for DIB, the DDE form associated with his SSI claim notes that "[t]here is no indication that there is medical or other opinion evidence, " Tr. 111, and that "[n]o RFC . . . assessments are associated with this claim, " id.

         After the Social Security Administration denied Chigas’s applications for DIB and SSI, he received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ took testimony from a medical expert, Dr. Bruce Witkind. Dr. Witkind testified that neither Chigas’s back condition nor his headaches qualified as disabling impairments under the applicable regulations. With regard to any limitations resulting from Chigas’s impairments, Dr. Witkind had this to say:

I’m not able to identify any limitations. If one wants to be cautious, there [are] some marginal changes on the MRI. If you want to be cautious, you might put him at a medium level of work maximum, which would be 50-pound maximum lifting, pushing, pulling, carrying on an occasional basis, with a maximum of 25 pounds lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying on a frequent basis. There will not be any other restrictions. For example, with regards to ...

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