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Gage v. U.S. Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

October 31, 2018

Brian Scott Gage
v.
U.S. Social Security Administration, Acting Commissioner

          ORDER ON APPEAL

          Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge.

         Brian Scott Gage has appealed the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) at the SSA ruled that, despite several severe impairments, Gage retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy after the alleged onset date of his disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Appeals Council denied Gage's request for review, with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on his application, see Id. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Gage then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).

         Gage 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 grants Gage'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).

         II. Background[1]

         The ALJ invoked the requisite five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing Gage's request for disability and disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. After determining that Gage had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset of his disability, [2] the ALJ analyzed the severity of his impairments. At this second step, the ALJ concluded that Gage had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, personality disorder, depression, and substance addiction disorder.”[3] At the third step, the ALJ found that Gage'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 Gage's own statements, the ALJ concluded that he retained the RFC to perform medium work, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), with a variety of physical, mental, and social limitations.[5] Finding that, even limited in this manner, Gage was able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy between his alleged onset date and the date of the ALJ's opinion, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566 and 416.966, the ALJ concluded his analysis and found that Gage was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during that time period.[6]

         III. Analysis

         Gage challenges the ALJ's decision on three fronts. First, he argues that the ALJ, at step three, failed to consider whether Gage's severe substance addiction and personality disorders met the appropriate mental listings. Second, he contends that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion evidence in crafting his RFC. Finally, he argues that the ALJ improperly narrowed his review of the evidence to that dated within 12 months of his alleged onset date and, further, failed to consider evidence that the ALJ said, at the hearing, he had already reviewed and would include in the record. Because the court agrees that the ALJ improperly narrowed the scope of the evidence reviewed, and remands on that basis, it need not--and therefore does not--address Gage's remaining arguments.

         For his Title II claim, Gage claimed that he was disabled as of January 1, 2014. In light of that date, the ALJ explained:

Pursuant to HALLEX I-2-6-58, the only material evidence is ‘evidence dated within 12 months of the alleged onset date.' The records within this 12-month period are material to show that the conditions alleged as disabling have existed, as required by the Social Security Act, for 12 months. The records dated prior to January 1, 2013, then, are not material.[7]

         With respect to Gage's Title XVI application, the ALJ explained that, pursuant to the same provision of the SSA's Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Law Manual (“HALLEX”), “[d]iscussion of evidence after March 31, 2014, and prior to March 13, 2015, ” the date of Gage's Title XVI application, “is limited to placing the claimant's current symptoms and limitations into context or used solely to evaluate the consistency of subjective complaints to objective findings. Thus, evidence outside the periods at issue was not considered when formulating the claimant's current limitations below.”[8]

         In so limiting his consideration of the record evidence, the ALJ misconstrued the HALLEX provision on which he relied. Under that provision, subject to certain limitations, the ALJ “will generally admit into the record any evidence that he or she determines is material to the issues in the case. Evidence is material if it is relevant, i.e., involves or is directly related to issues being adjudicated.” HALLEX § I-2-6-58(A). After defining materiality, that provision then lists five “examples of evidence that may be material to a claim for disability, ” including “[e]vidence dated within 12 months of the alleged onset date under a title II application for disability insurance benefits, ” and “[e]vidence dated on or after the application date or protective filing date of a title XVI application claiming disability.” Id. These are, however, merely examples of material evidence. They are not, as the ALJ concluded, “the only material evidence . . .”[9] An ALJ who limits his consideration to the evidence listed in those examples “misread[s] HALLEX I-2-6-58(A) because, by its own terms, [that provision] ...


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