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Benoit v. U.S. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

June 22, 2018

Rebecca Benoit
v.
U.S. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

          ORDER

          Joseph N. Laplante District Judge.

         Rebecca Benoit has appealed the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) at the SSA ruled that, despite severe impairments, Benoit retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and thus is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council later denied Benoit's request for review, see id. § 404.967, with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on her application, see id. § 404.981. Benoit then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Benoit has moved to reverse the decision. See LR 9.1(b). The Acting Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the ALJ's decision. See LR 9.1(e). After careful consideration, the court grants Benoit's motion and denies the Acting Commissioner's motion.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         The court limits its review of a final decision of the SSA “to determining whether the ALJ used the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Ward v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 211 F.3d 652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000). It “review[s] questions of law de novo, but defer[s] to the Commissioner's findings of fact, so long as they are supported by substantial evidence, ” id., that is, “such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The court “must uphold a denial of social security . . . benefits unless ‘the [Acting Commissioner] has committed a legal or factual error in evaluating a particular claim.'” Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (quoting Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 885 (1989)).

         II. Background[1]

         The ALJ invoked the requisite five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing Benoit's request for disability and disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. After determining that Benoit had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset of her disability on August 28, 2013, the ALJ analyzed the severity of her impairments. At this second step, the ALJ concluded that Benoit had two severe impairments: affective disorder and anxiety disorders.[2]

         At the third step, the ALJ found that Benoit's severe impairments did not meet or “medically equal” the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations.[3] See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. After reviewing the medical evidence of record, medical opinions, and Benoit's own statements, the ALJ concluded that Benoit retained the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the nonexertional limitations that the work involve only “simple, routine tasks, ” and “[w]hen dealing with changes in the work setting, she is limited to simple work related decisions.”[4] Finding that, even limited in this manner, Benoit was able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566 and 416.966, the ALJ concluded his analysis and found that Benoit was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         III. Analysis

         After her administrative hearing and after the ALJ issued his decision denying Benoit's application for a period of disability and disability benefits, Benoit requested review by the Appeals Council. She submitted for the Council's consideration evidence that she obtained after the ALJ's decision issued on February 23, 2016. Specifically, she submitted two pieces of evidence: (1) a letter from Lina Juranty, LICSW, dated April 19, 2016, contesting the ALJ's interpretation and application to Benoit's case of certain notations in her records from Benoit's therapy session[5]; and (2) a “Mental Impairment Questionnaire” completed by Melinda Wolfe, APRN, and dated May 17, 2016.[6] Benoit argues that the Appeals Council erred by failing to consider this newly-submitted evidence.[7]

         The Appeals Council addresses new evidence submitted after the ALJ's decision using the following process:

If new and material evidence is submitted, the Appeals Council shall consider the additional evidence only where it relates to the period on or before the date of the administrative law judge hearing decision. The Appeals Council shall evaluate the entire record including the new and material evidence submitted if it relates to the period on or before the date of the administrative law judge hearing decision. It will then review the case if it finds that the administrative law judge's action, findings, or conclusion is contrary to the weight of the evidence currently of record.

20 C.F.R. § 404.970(b).[8] In Benoit's case, the Appeals Council acknowledged the additional evidence.[9] It concluded that this evidence “is about a later time, ” and therefore “does not affect the decision about whether [she was] disabled beginning on or before February 23, 2016.”[10] Accordingly, the Appeals Council denied Benoit's request for review.[11]

         “[A]n Appeals Council refusal to review the ALJ may be reviewable where it gives an egregiously mistaken ground for” its refusal to review the ALJ's decision. Mills v. Apfel,244 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). “[I]f the Appeals Council mistakenly rejected the new evidence on the ground that it was not ...


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