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Gelinas v. U.S. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 6, 2018

Richard Gelinas
U.S. Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

          D. Lance Tillinghast, Esq. Robert J. Rabuck, AUSA



         Richard Gelinas has appealed the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits between the date he alleged his disability began and the onset date determined by the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) at the SSA. The ALJ ruled that, despite several severe impairments, Gelinas retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy between March 15, 2013, and August 26, 2015, and thus was not disabled during that period.[1] See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council denied Gelinas's request for review, with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on his application, see id. § 404.981. Gelinas then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Gelinas has moved to reverse the ALJ's decision. See LR 9.1(b). The Acting Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the decision. See LR 9.1(c). After careful consideration, the court denies Gelinas's motion and grants 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). “Substantial-evidence review is more deferential than it might sound to the lay ear: though certainly ‘more than a scintilla' of evidence is required to meet the benchmark, a preponderance of evidence is not.” Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 13 (1st Cir. 2018) (quoting Bath Iron Works Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 336 F.3d 51, 56 (1st Cir. 2003)).

         Thus, though the evidence in the record may support multiple conclusions, the court will still uphold the ALJ's findings “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). The court therefore “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[2]

         The ALJ invoked the requisite five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing Gelinas's request for disability and disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. After determining that Gelinas had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset of his disability on March 15, 2013, the ALJ analyzed the severity of his impairments. At this second step, the ALJ concluded that Gelinas had the following severe impairments:

spondyloarthropathy with chronic back pain and radiculopathy; L5-S1 degenerative disc disease with protrusion; moderate to severe diffuse lumbar spine facet joint osteoarthritis; gout; diabetes; hypertension; morbid obesity; status post cerebral hemorrhage; learning disability; depression; bilateral knee osteoarthritis with very mild narrowing of medical joint compartments, left knee flattening of the lateral femoral condyle with osteophyte off lateral left tibial plateau; right knee osteophyte emanating off tibial plateau; DVT (deep vein thrombosis; right ankle osteoarthritis, Os trigonum fused to talas, advanced subtalar joint osteoarthritis; ankle talonavicular and calcaneocuboid joint osteoarthritis, Achilles and plantar calcaneal spurs; reading disorder; mild degenerative joint disease of bilateral hips, right, greater than left.[3]

         At the third step, the ALJ found that Gelinas's severe impairments did not meet or “medically equal” the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations.[4] 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 Gelinas's own statements, the ALJ concluded that he retained the RFC to perform sedentary work, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that he could:

lift up to 20 pounds occasionally, and would only be able to stand or walk for a total of 2 hours in an 8hour workday and sit for 6 hours, in an 8-hour workday. He was limited to occasional postural maneuvers. He would need to avoid exposure to extremes of heat or cold, wetness, humidity, excessive vibrations, and avoid even occasional exposure to unprotected heights and could not be around dangerous moving machinery. He retained the mental capacity for simple, unskilled tasks.[5]

         Finding that, even limited in this manner, Gelinas was able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy between his alleged onset date and August 26, 2015, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566 and 416.966, the ALJ concluded his analysis and found that Gelinas was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during that time period.[6]

         The ALJ then refined Gelinas's RFC, finding that, beginning on August 26, 2015, “due to pain and medical treatment, [Gelinas] would need frequent unscheduled breaks, and would be off task 25% of the time and miss more than 3 days of work a month.”[7] Given those additional limitations, the ALJ concluded Gelinas could perform no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and thus was disabled.[8]

         III. Analysis

         Gelinas challenges the ALJ's determination of his disability onset date. Specifically, he contends that the ALJ erred in concluding that he was not disabled between his alleged onset date of March 15, 2013, and the ALJ's determined onset date of August 26, 2015. He further contends that the ALJ erred by making that determination without consulting a medical advisor. As outlined below, the ALJ did not err on either front.

         “The onset date of disability is the first day an individual is disabled as defined in the Act and the regulations.” Titles II & XVI: Onset of Disability (SSR 83-20), 1983-1991 Soc. Sec. Rep. Serv. 49, at *1 (S.S.A. 1983). The ALJ is tasked with determining the claimant's onset date of disability. Id. Gelinas bears the burden of proving it. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Purdy, 887 F.3d at 9 (claimant bears burden of proof at first four steps of the five-step process).

         “In disabilities of nontraumatic origin, ” such as Gelinas's, “the determination of onset involves consideration of the applicant's allegations, work history, if any, and the medical and other ...

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