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Robinson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

May 8, 2017

Charles P. Robinson, Claimant
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant Opinion No. 2017 DNH 092

          ORDER

          Steven J. McAuliffe United States District Judge

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), claimant, Charles P. Robinson, moves to reverse or vacate the Acting Commissioner's decision denying his application for 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, and the Acting Commissioner's motion is denied.

         Factual Background

          I. Procedural History.

         In 2013, Robinson filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits, alleging that he had been unable to work since August 24, 2010, due to breathing problems, and neck and back pain.[1] Administrative Record (“Admin. Rec.”) at 429, 433. That application was denied (Admin. Rec. at 96), and Robinson requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Admin. Rec. at 108).

         On August 25, 2015, Robinson, his attorney, and a vocational expert appeared before an ALJ, who considered claimant's application de novo. Admin. Rec. at 59-82. At the hearing, claimant amended his alleged onset date to July 15, 2013. Admin. Rec. at 62. On September 3, 2015, the ALJ issued his written decision. The ALJ concluded that Robinson was disabled, as that term is defined in the Act, beginning on Robinson's 55th birthday (October 29, 2014), and continuing through the date of the decision. Admin. Rec. at 28. The ALJ further concluded that Robinson was not disabled, as that term is defined in the Act, prior to October 29, 2014. Id. at 23-27.

         Robinson sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. Admin. Rec. at 6-12. By notice dated August 23, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Robinson's request for review. Id. at 1-5. Accordingly, the ALJ's denial of Robinson's application for benefits became the final decision of the Acting Commissioner, subject to judicial review. Id.

         Subsequently, Robinson filed a timely action in this court, asserting that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Robinson then filed a “Motion for Order Reversing Decision of the Commissioner” (document no. 6). In response, the Acting Commissioner filed a “Motion for Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner” (document no. 9). 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. 8), 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 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 that there are other jobs in the national economy that he can perform, in light of his 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. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982). Ultimately, a claimant is disabled only if his:

physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). See also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         With those principles in mind, the court reviews claimant's motion to reverse and the Acting ...


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