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Ouellette v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 19, 2018

Kellie A. Ouellette, Claimant
Nancy A. Berryhill, Deputy Commissioner For Operations, Performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          Alexandra M. Jackson, Esq. Karen B. Fitzmaurice, Esq. Penelope E. Gronbeck, Esq.


          Steven J. McAuliffe United States District Judge

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), claimant, Kellie A. Ouellette, moves to reverse the Acting Commissioner's decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 423, and Supplemental Security Income Benefits under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(c). The Deputy Commissioner for Operations objects and moves for an order affirming the decision.

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

         Factual Background

         I. Procedural History

         On August 19, 2014, claimant protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income, alleging that she was disabled and had been unable to work since June 9, 2014. Those applications were denied on November 14, 2014, and claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         On May 4, 2016, claimant, her attorney, and an impartial vocational expert appeared before an ALJ, who considered claimant's application de novo. On May 25, 2016, the ALJ issued his written decision, concluding that claimant was not disabled, as that term is defined in the Act, through the date of his decision. Claimant then requested review by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied claimant's request for review. Accordingly, the ALJ's denial of claimant's applications for benefits became the final decision of the Acting 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 the Commissioner” (document no. 11). In response, the Acting Commissioner filed a “Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner” (document no. 12). 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. 17), 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 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).

         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' ...

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