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Giandomenico v. U.S. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

November 15, 2017

Mark A. Giandomenico
v.
U.S. Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Paul Barbadoro, United States District Judge.

         Mark Giandomenico challenges the Social Security Administration's denial of his claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). He contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in assessing his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by improperly relying upon the opinion of a consultative physician who allegedly relied on an outdated medical record. The Acting Commissioner, in turn, moves for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. For the reasons that follow, I grant Giandomenico's motion to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Giandomenico is a 48 year-old man who has worked as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, a concession-stand clerk, and a cook. See Administrative Transcript (hereinafter “Tr.”) 213, 229 (Doc. No. 4). He applied for SSI in October 2013, alleging disability as of July 23, 2012, due to heart disease, stroke, asthma, and high blood pressure, among other ailments. See Tr. 12, 211.[1] At the forefront of Giandomenico's claim, symptomatically speaking, are his severe breathing difficulties and the residual effects of an October 2013 stroke, which caused numbness, a tingling sensation, and diminished strength in the right side of his body. See Tr. 34-35. Furthermore, beginning as late as March 2015 and occurring as recently as July 2015, Giandomencio has experienced presynocopal episodes, or fainting spells. See Tr. 623, 785. The cause of these episodes has not been determined, although altered blood flow of the cerebral and extracranial vessels, or stenosis of the prostatic aortic valve have both been suspected. See Tr. 779, 785, 794.

         Giandomenico now appeals from a September 21, 2016 decision of the SSA Appeals Council denying his request to review the ALJ's determination that he was “not disabled.” See Tr. 20.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ's conclusion followed from his application of the five-step, sequential analysis required by 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). See Tr. 12-21. At step one, the ALJ found that Giandomenico had not worked since October 1, 2013, the date of his application. See Tr. 14. At step two, the ALJ found that Giandomenico had severe impairments of obesity, asthma, sleep apnea, hypertension, status post cardiovascular accident with residual right-sided weakness, status post aortic valve replacement, and psoriasis. Id. The ALJ further found that Giandomenico's only medically-determinable mental impairments, depression and memory impairment, were nonsevere. See Tr. 14-15. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Giandomenico's impairments, individually nor in combination, qualified for any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925-26. Specifically, the ALJ considered Giandomenico's pulmonary and cardiac impairments under the pertinent listings, along with the potential contributive effects of obesity to those impairments, but concluded that the evidence of record did not demonstrate the requisite severity under either listing. See Tr. 16.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Giandomenico had the RFC to perform light exertional work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with several postural, manipulative, and environmental limitations.[2] See Tr. 16-19. In so doing, the ALJ found that although there was a reasonable nexus between Giandomenico's impairments and his alleged symptoms, his statements regarding the “intensity, persistence and limiting effects” of those symptoms were not “entirely credible.” Tr. 17-18. Moreover, the ALJ found that “the nature, duration and frequency of [Giandomenico's] pain resulted in only a minimal actual functional limitation based on his own description of his daily activities and the treatment notes of examining physicians.” Tr. 19. Although, the ALJ determined that Giandomenico was unable to perform his past relevant work, he concluded that Giandomenico “can perform a wide range of light exertional work activities despite his physical impairments.” Tr. 19.

         In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ essentially adopted the findings of Burton Nault, M.D, a physician employed by the State Disability Determination Services (“DDS”), who reviewed Giandomenico's medical records as of February 6, 2014 and offered an opinion regarding his RFC. Id. The ALJ reasoned that nothing had been admitted into the record indicating that Giandomenico's condition had worsened from the time of Dr. Nault's review, and no treating source had opined that Giandomenico had incurred additional limitations as of that time. Id.

         Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that despite his limitations, Giandomenico could work in a significant number of “light exertional” jobs available in both the regional and national economy.[3] Consequently, the ALJ found that Giandomenico was “not disabled” under the appropriate framework, and denied his claim for SSI. Tr. 20-21.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive, even where the record “arguably could support a different conclusion.” Id. at 770. If, however, the ALJ derived her findings by “ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts, ” they are not conclusive. 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 ...


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