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Cassidy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 5, 2018

Nancy Cindy Cassidy, Claimant
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant

          Peter K. Marsh, Esq. Robert J. Rabuck, Esq. Terry L. Ollila, AUSA


          Steven J. McAuliffe, United States District Judge

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), claimant, Nancy Cassidy, moves to reverse or vacate the Acting Commissioner's decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 423 (the “Act”). The Acting Commissioner objects and moves for an order affirming her decision.

         For the reasons discussed below, claimant's motion is denied, and the Acting Commissioner's motion is granted.

         Factual Background

         I. Procedural History.

         Claimant has unsuccessfully pursued Social Security benefits on two prior occasions. In July of 2010, she filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits, alleging an onset of disability in March of 2010. An ALJ denied those applications by decision dated January 20, 2012. A year later, in April of 2013, claimant again filed for both DIB and SSI benefits, alleging a disability onset date of March of 2012. An ALJ denied those applications by decision dated December 24, 2014.

         Most recently, in March of 2015, claimant filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging that she was disabled and had been unable to work since December 25, 2014 (the day following her last denial). Claimant was 40 years old at the time and had acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through June of 2017. Claimant's application was denied and she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         In June of 2016, claimant, her attorney, and an impartial vocational expert appeared before an ALJ, who considered claimant's application de novo. Following the hearing, the ALJ held the record open so claimant might submit additional evidence in support of her application. In July, claimant provided those additional materials. See Admin. Rec. at 30-87; 625-30. The ALJ then issued his written decision, concluding that claimant was not disabled, as that term is defined in the Act, at any time prior to the date of his decision (October 12, 2016). In response, claimant requested review by the Appeals Council. That request was denied. Accordingly, the ALJ's denial of claimant's application for benefits became the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to judicial review. Subsequently, claimant filed a timely action in this court, asserting that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence.

         Claimant then filed a “Motion to Reverse Decision of Commissioner” (document no. 7). In response, the Acting Commissioner filed a “Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner” (document no. 10). Those motions are pending.

         II. Stipulated Facts.

         Pursuant to this court's Local Rule 9.1, the parties have submitted a joint statement of stipulated facts which, because it is part of the court's record (document no. 9), 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). See also Irlanda 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). Importantly, 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).

         II. The Parties' Respective Burdens.

         An individual seeking DIB 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). The Act places the 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 her impairment prevents her from performing her former type of work. See Manso-Pizarro v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 76 F.3d 15, 17 (1st Cir. 1996); Gray v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 369, 371 (1st Cir. 1985). If the claimant demonstrates an inability to perform her previous work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are other jobs in the national economy that she can perform, in light of her 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 and 404.1560.

         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 her:

physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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 [she] lives, or whether a ...

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