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Fischer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 26, 2017

Gloria Gean Fischer
v.
US Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner, Nancy A. Berryhill Opinion No. 2017 DNH 119

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Paul Barbadoro, United States District Judge

         Gloria Gean Fischer is a fifty-nine-year-old woman who previously operated her own business. Earlier in this proceeding, Fischer challenged the Social Security Administration's denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). After I reversed the denial, the Acting Commissioner sought review of my order by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The First Circuit vacated my order and remanded for consideration of Fischer's remaining claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Underlying Facts

         In accordance with Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts (Doc. No. 19). Because that joint statement is part of the court's record, I do not recount it here. Instead, I discuss facts relevant to the disposition of this matter as necessary below.

         B. Procedural Posture

         Fischer protectively applied for DIB on February 28, 2012, alleging disability as of October 31, 1995. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) subsequently held a hearing in May 2013 at which Fischer, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. Shortly thereafter, the ALJ produced a written decision denying Fischer's application. The Appeals Council declined review, making the ALJ's decision the Acting Commissioner's final decision.

         In his decision, the ALJ laid out the five-step, sequential analysis prescribed by 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). Given the ALJ's conclusion, however, he did not proceed past step two. At step one, the ALJ determined that it was unnecessary to ascertain whether Fischer's income constituted substantial gainful employment. At step two, the ALJ found that Fischer had a medically determinable impairment - sciatica - but did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments as of March 31, 1998, her date last insured (“DLI”). Accordingly, Fischer was not disabled prior to that date.

         In an order dated October 30, 2014, I reviewed the ALJ's decision and remanded to correct a legal error. I ruled that the ALJ failed to consult a medical expert when deciding that Fischer was not disabled prior to her DLI, as is generally required by SSR 83-20. See SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *3 (Jan. 1, 1983). And although an ALJ need not consult a medical expert where the record unambiguously shows that the claimant was not disabled as of her DLI, see, e.g., May v. Soc. Sec. Admin. Com'r, 125 F.3d 841 (1st Cir. 1997) (unpublished) (per curiam), I concluded that the record was ambiguous.

         On appeal, the First Circuit reached the contrary conclusion. Focusing on an MRI of Fischer's cervical spine and x-rays of her pelvis and left hip - all of which were taken around the time of her DLI and all of which were normal - the First Circuit held that the medical evidence unambiguously demonstrated that Fischer had not become disabled prior to her DLI. See Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 35-36 (1st Cir. 2016). Accordingly, even if SSR 83-20 applied, the ALJ did not need to consult a medical expert. Id. at 39. The First Circuit instructed me to consider Fischer's remaining claims. See Id. at 39 & n.10.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), I have the authority to review the administrative record and the pleadings submitted by the parties, and to enter judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the final decision of the Commissioner. That review is limited, however, “to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts [based] upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). I defer to the ALJ's findings of fact, so long as those findings are supported by substantial evidence. Id. Substantial evidence exists “if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support his conclusion.” Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 769 (1st Cir. 1991) (per curiam) (quoting Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981)).

         If the substantial evidence standard is met, the ALJ's factual findings are conclusive, even where the record “arguably could support a different conclusion.” Id. at 770. Findings are not conclusive, however, if the ALJ derived his findings by “ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts.” Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (per curiam). The ALJ is responsible for determining issues of credibility and for drawing inferences from evidence in the record. Irlanda Ortiz, 955 F.2d at 769. It is the role of the ALJ, not the court, to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Id.

         III. ...


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