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Locke v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

November 2, 2016

Daniel Perry Locke
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration

          Laurie Smith Young, Esq.

          T. David Plourde, Esq.


          Andrea K. Johnstone United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Daniel Locke moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision to deny his application for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423. 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.

         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). However, the court “must uphold a denial of social security disability 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)).

         As for the statutory requirement that the Acting Commissioner's findings of fact be supported by substantial evidence, “[t]he substantial evidence test applies not only to findings of basic evidentiary facts, but also to inferences and conclusions drawn from such facts.” Alexandrou v. Sullivan, 764 F.Supp. 916, 917-18 (S.D.N.Y. 1991) (citing Levine v. Gardner, 360 F.2d 727, 730 (2d Cir. 1966)). In turn, “[s]ubstantial evidence is ‘more than [a] mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Currier v. Sec'y of HEW, 612 F.2d 594, 597 (1st Cir. 1980) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). But, “[i]t is the responsibility of the [Acting Commissioner] to determine issues of credibility and to draw inferences from the record evidence. Indeed, the resolution of conflicts in the evidence is for the [Acting Commissioner], not the courts.” Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of HHS, 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (per curiam) (citations omitted). Moreover, the court “must uphold the [Acting Commissioner's] conclusion, even if the record arguably could justify a different conclusion, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence.” Tsarelka v. Sec'y of HHS, 842 F.2d 529, 535 (1st Cir. 1988) (per curiam). Finally, when determining whether a decision of the Acting Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, the court must “review[] the evidence in the record as a whole.” Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769 (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of HHS, 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)).

         II. Background

         The parties have submitted a Joint Statement of Material Facts. That statement, document no. 13, is part of the court's record and will be summarized here, rather than repeated in full.

         Locke worked as a collision repair technician until April 15, 2012, the date on which he claims to have become disabled. He applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) about three months later, claiming that he was unable to work due to “[p]eripheral neuropathy from diabetes, loss of balance [and] numbness, burning, tickling in fingers and feet.” Administrative Transcript (hereinafter “Tr.”) 163. He has been diagnosed with diabetes mellitus and peripheral neuropathy.[1]

         About three months after Locke applied for DIB, he was examined by Dr. John Fothergill. Thereafter, Dr. Fothergill wrote a narrative that includes the following relevant observations:

[H]e states that that he cannot drive for longer than 30 minutes because holding the steering wheel become impossible. . . . With respect to lifting things certainly he cannot do what he used to do. He has a significant problem because he just cannot feel what he is holding and he's dropped things, the weight itself is not necessarily a problem. Carrying is also limited because of problems with his hands and feet.

         Tr. 282-83.

         About a week after Locke saw Dr. Fothergill, Locke's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] was assessed by Dr. Burton Nault, a state-agency physician who reviewed his medical records. Dr. Nault opined: “There are no exertional (lifting, carrying walking, standing, sitting, pushing, or pulling) or non-exertional (postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental) limitations.” Tr. 56.

         In February of 2014, Locke was seen by Dr. Gregory White of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who examined him and completed a form titled “Diabetic Sensory-Motor Peripheral Neuropathy Disability Benefits Questionnaire.” On that form, Dr. White: (1) reported the results of a neurologic exam;[3] and (2) characterized the severity of Locke's upper and lower extremity neuropathy. He concluded with the following description of the functional impact of Locke's neuropathy:

[V]eteran had to leave his job as an auto/auto body mechanic around May 2012 due to inability to manipulate small parts such as screws, clips and wires with both hands, largely because he could not feel them well. Also he had difficulty using tools for both finely coordinated work and also for work requiring gross hand strength or prolonged grasping. Also due to lower extremity neuropathy he had difficulty standing for long periods of time that was frequently required on that type of job. These impairments in strength and ...

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