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Briand v. U.S. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

August 28, 2017

James T. Briand
US Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner, Nancy A. Berryhill Opinion No. 2017 DNH 159


          Paul Barbadoro, United States District Judge.

         James Briand challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny his claim for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. Briand argues that the Administrative Law Judge incorrectly formulated his residual functional capacity by omitting a limitation that requires Briand to periodically take a break from standing.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In accordance with Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts (Doc. No. 14). Because that joint statement is part of the court's record, I do not recount it here. I discuss facts relevant to the disposition of this matter as necessary below.


         I am authorized to review the pleadings submitted by the parties and the administrative record and enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the “final decision” of the Commissioner. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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. ANALYSIS

         Briand is a 52-year-old man who previously worked as a sandblaster, pipefitter, and hand cutter. See Tr. 2, 123, 153. He alleges that he has been disabled since May 31, 2013. Tr. 375, 659.

         In June 2013, Briand filed his first application for benefits. Tr. 148. On June 16, 2014, an ALJ denied his claim. Tr. 8. Briand then challenged the denial by filing an action in this court over which Judge McCafferty presided. Tr. 424-39; Briand v. Colvin, 2015 DNH 131. While that action was pending, Briand filed new applications for benefits, alleging disability since the day after the ALJ's decision. Tr. 458-79. On May 27, 2015, a single decision-maker approved the new applications, finding that Briand was disabled because his hip impairment met a qualifying listing. Tr. 477-78.

         In a decision issued the following month, Judge McCafferty remanded Briand's challenge to the denial of his 2013 application. Briand, 2015 DNH 131 at 15. Judge McCafferty explained that an uncontroverted medical opinion limited Briand to taking a break from standing every 30 minutes (the “sit/stand limitation”), and the ALJ erred by omitting the limitation from Briand's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment. Id. at 14. The Appeals Council, in turn, remanded the case for reconsideration by the ALJ. Tr. 442-43. The Appeals Council also instructed the ALJ to evaluate whether to reopen the single decision-maker's approval of Briand's 2014 applications. Tr. 442.

         On remand, the ALJ held a hearing at which a vocational expert, an orthopedic medical expert, and Briand testified. Tr. 373-402. On March 29, 2016, the ALJ issued a new decision concluding that Briand was not disabled. Tr. 340-372. The ALJ reopened the single decision-maker's approval and specified that the ALJ's latest conclusions ran from the alleged onset date through the date of the 2016 decision. Tr. 343-44, 362-63. Briand then filed this action challenging the decision. Doc. No. 1.

         Briand argues, inter alia, that the ALJ erred by again failing to include the sit/stand limitation in the RFC. Although no such limitation was found by the orthopedic expert who testified at the remand hearing, Briand observes that the expert's opinion was based strictly on Briand's orthopedic conditions, and the expert did not consider Briand's other medically determinable impairments and their functional implications. In response, the Acting Commissioner acknowledges the limited scope of the expert's opinion, but argues that the ALJ permissibly omitted the sit/stand limitation because Briand's non-orthopedic impairments were not severe. See Doc. No. 12-1 at 12-13; see also Doc. No. 14 at 6. For the following reasons, I conclude that the ALJ erred in formulating Briand's RFC.

         A. Residual ...

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