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Gagnon v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

August 10, 2016

Jay Gagnon, Claimant
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant Opinion No. 2016 DNH 134

          Bennett B. Mortell, Esq.

          Michael T. McCormack, Esq.


          Steven J. McAuliffe United States District Judge

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), claimant, Jay Gagnon, moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner’s decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 423, and Supplemental Security Income Benefits under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(c). The Acting Commissioner objects and moves for an order affirming her decision.

         For the reasons discussed below, claimant’s motion is granted to the extent he seeks a remand for further proceedings, and the Acting Commissioner’s motion is denied.

         Factual Background

         I. Procedural History

         On May 16, 2012, Gagnon filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging that he had been unable to work since August 1, 2011, due to a “mental health diagnosis, ” “schizoaffective disorder bipolar type, ” and depression. Administrative Record (“Admin. Rec.”) at 83-84 and 172. That application was denied (admin. rec. at 84-85), and claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (admin. rec. at 93-94).

         On November 18, 2013, Gagnon, his counsel, and a vocational expert appeared before an ALJ, who considered claimant’s application de novo. Admin. Rec. at 34-62. At the hearing, Gagnon amended his alleged onset date to March 15, 2012. Admin. Rec. at 36, 147. On December 18, 2013, the ALJ issued his written decision, concluding that Gagnon had medically determinable impairments, but that none of them were severe, as that term is defined in the Act. Id. at 22. Therefore, the ALJ concluded, Gagnon was not disabled. Id. at 28.

         Gagnon then sought review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council. Admin. Rec. at 8 - 14. By notice dated April 14, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Gagnon’s request for review. Id. at 1 - 6. Accordingly, the ALJ’s denial of Gagnon’s application for benefits became the final decision of the Acting Commissioner, subject to judicial review. Id. at 1.

         Subsequently, Gagnon filed a timely action in this court, asserting that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Gagnon then filed a “Motion for Order Reversing Decision of the Commissioner” (document no. 8). In response, the Acting Commissioner filed a “Motion for Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner” (document no. 10). Those motions are pending.

         II. Stipulated Facts.

         Pursuant to this court’s Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a statement of stipulated facts which, because it is part of the court’s record (document no. 12), need not be recounted in this opinion. Those facts relevant to the disposition of this matter are discussed as appropriate.

         Standard of Review

         I. “Substantial Evidence” and Deferential Review.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court is empowered “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.” Factual findings and credibility determinations made by the Commissioner are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). See also Ortiz v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). It is something less than a preponderance of the evidence, so the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency’s finding from being supported by substantial evidence. Consolo v. Federal Maritime Comm’n., 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). See also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         This court’s review of the ALJ’s decision is, therefore, both limited and deferential. The court is not empowered to consider claimant’s application de novo, nor may it undertake an independent assessment of whether she is disabled under the Act. Rather, the court’s inquiry is “limited to determining whether the ALJ deployed the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999). Provided the ALJ’s findings are properly supported by substantial evidence, the court must sustain those findings even when there may also be substantial evidence supporting the contrary position. Such is the nature of judicial review of disability benefit determinations. See, e.g., Tsarelka v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 842 F.2d 529, 535 (1st Cir. 1988); Rodriguez v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

         II. The Parties’ Respective Burdens.

         An individual seeking SSI and/or DIB benefits is disabled under the Act if he or she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). See also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3). The Act places a heavy initial burden on the claimant to establish the existence of a disabling impairment. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146-47 (1987); Santiago v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 944 F.2d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 1991). To satisfy that burden, the claimant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his impairment prevents him from performing his former type of work. See Gray v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 369, 371 (1st Cir. 1985); Paone v. Schweiker, 530 F.Supp. 808, 810-11 (D. Mass. 1982). If the claimant demonstrates an inability to perform his previous work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show ...

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