United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
B. McCafferty, United States District Judge.
Blakley seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration denying his applications for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income. In moving to reverse the decision, Blakley contends
that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred
in making the residual functional capacity assessment and in
failing to consider a prior decision by a different ALJ. The
Commissioner moves to affirm.
court’s review of the final decision of the Acting
Commissioner in a social security case “is limited to
determining whether the [Administrative Law Judge
(“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);
accord Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir.
2001). The court defers to the ALJ’s factual findings
if they are supported by substantial evidence even if the
record could arguably support a different result. §
405(g); Ward v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 211 F.3d
652, 655 (1st Cir. 2000); Irlanda Ortiz v. Sec’y of
Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 765, 770 (1st Cir.
1991). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla
of evidence” but less than a preponderance. Purdy
v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 13 (1st Cir. 2018).
determining whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of
social security benefits, the ALJ follows a five-step
sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 &
416.920. The claimant bears the burden through the
first four steps of proving that his impairments preclude him
from working. Purdy, 887 F.3d at 9. The first three
steps are (1) determining whether the claimant is engaged in
substantial gainful activity; (2) determining whether he has
a severe impairment; and (3) determining whether the
impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R.
fourth step of the sequential analysis, the ALJ assesses the
claimant’s residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), which is a determination of the most a
person can do in a work setting despite his limitations
caused by impairments, Id. § 404.1545(a)(1),
and his past relevant work, id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If
the claimant can perform his past relevant work, the ALJ will
find that the claimant is not disabled. See Id.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his
past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to Step Five, in which
the ALJ has the burden of showing that jobs exist in the
economy which the claimant can do in light of the RFC
assessment. See Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
detailed factual background can be found in Blakley’s
statement of facts (doc. no. 10) and the
Commissioner’s statement of facts (doc. no.
12). The court provides a brief summary of the case
December 17, 2012, Blakley applied for disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income. After
Blakley’s applications were denied, he requested a
hearing before an ALJ. On April 24, 2013, the ALJ held a
hearing, after which she denied Blakley’s claim for
benefits in a written decision dated October 9, 2014. In that
decision, the ALJ found that Blakley had the residual
functional capacity to do work at the sedentary level with
certain restrictions and that he was not disabled. The
Appeals Council denied Blakley’s request for review,
making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s
final decision. Blakley brought an action in federal court
challenging that decision. See Blakley v. U.S. Soc. Sec.
Admin., Acting Comm’r, 15-cv-397-LM (D.N.H. Sep.
April 6, 2016, upon an assented-to motion by the
Commissioner, the district court remanded the federal court
action to the Commissioner for further administrative
proceedings. The Appeals Council subsequently vacated the
Commissioner’s decision and remanded the case to an ALJ
to: (1) further evaluate Blakley’s mental impairments;
(2) further consider the medical source opinions of James
Samson, an occupational therapist, Dr. Jonathan Sixon,
Blakley’s treating physician, and Dr. Jonathan Jaffe, a
state agency consultant; (3) reassess Blakley’s
residual functional capacity and obtain testimony from a
vocational expert to support the ALJ’s Step Five
finding. See Admin. Rec. at 692-94.
April 25, 2017, a different ALJ held a second hearing.
Blakley, who was represented by an attorney, and his wife,
Jennifer Blakley, appeared at the hearing and testified. Dr.
Robert Thompson, a medical expert, testified by phone.
Elizabeth Laflamme, a vocational expert, was available to
testify by phone, but the ALJ did not seek testimony from
24, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. She found
that Blakley had a severe impairment due to chronic pain
syndrome but found that he did not have a severe impairment
due to degenerative disc disease or due to any mental
in the first decision, which found that Blakley was capable
of sedentary work, the ALJ found that Blakley had the
residual functional capacity to do light work with certain
restrictions. The restrictions included that Blakley could
never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and could do other
postural activities only occasionally.
assessing Blakley’s RFC, the ALJ considered
Blakley’s testimony as to his activities of daily
living and symptoms, as well as his medical records and the
medical opinion evidence.
directed by the Appeals Council, the ALJ reassessed the
opinion evidence of Blakley’s treating physician, Dr.
Sixon, his occupational therapist, James Samson, and the
state agency consultant, Dr. Jaffe. As discussed further
infra, the ALJ gave Dr. Sixon’s and Samson’s
opinions little weight and gave Dr. Jaffe’s opinion
great weight. In addition, in assessing Blakley’s RFC,
the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinion of the
impartial medical expert, Dr. Thompson.
then used the Medical-Vocational Guidelines to find at Step
Five that Blakley was not disabled, concluding that the
additional postural limitations on Blakley’s ability to
do light work had little or no effect on the base of
unskilled work. The Appeals Council denied Blakley’s
request for review, ...