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Gottier v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 12, 2016

Doris T. Gottier, Claimant
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant No. 2016 DNH 161

          ORDER

          Steven J. McAuliffe United States District Judge

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), claimant, Doris T. Gottier, moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 423. The Acting Commissioner objects and moves for an order affirming her decision.

         For the reasons discussed below, claimant's motion is granted as set forth herein, and the Acting Commissioner's motion is denied.

         Factual Background

         I. Procedural History.

         In 2012, Gottier filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging that she had been unable to work since August 20, 2012, due to neck strain, anxiety, a history of cervical spine fusion, asthma, high blood pressure, degeneration of the discs of her cervical spine, acid reflux, nerve damage, high cholesterol, muscle spasms, arthritis, a fractured disc in her back, leg pain and depression. Administrative Record (“Admin. Rec.”) at 73, 63, 151. That application was denied (Admin. Rec. at 73), and claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Admin. Rec. at 78-79).

         On January 27, 2014, Gottier, her attorney, and a vocational expert appeared before an ALJ, who considered claimant's application de novo. Admin. Rec. at 40-62. On March 24, 2014, the ALJ issued his written decision, concluding that Gottier was not disabled, as that term is defined in the Act, at any time prior to the date of his decision. Id. at 23-33.

         Gottier then sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. Admin. Rec. at 18-19. By notice dated July 15, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Gottier's request for review. Admin. Rec. at 1-6. Accordingly, the ALJ's denial of Gottier's application for benefits became the final decision of the Acting Commissioner, subject to judicial review. Id. at 1.

         Subsequently, Gottier filed a timely action in this court, asserting that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Gottier 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. 11). 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. 11), 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 Irlanda 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 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). 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 her impairment prevents her from performing her 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 her previous work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are other jobs in the national economy that she can perform, in light of her age, education, and prior work experience. See Vazquez v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 683 F.2d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 1982). See also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(f) and 416.912(f).

         In assessing a disability claim, the Commissioner considers both objective and subjective factors, including: (1) objective medical facts; (2) the claimant's subjective claims of pain and disability, as supported by the testimony of the claimant or other witnesses; and (3) the claimant's educational background, age, and work experience. See, e.g., Avery v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 797 F.2d 19, 23 (1st Cir. 1986); Goodermote v. ...


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