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Blakley v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

September 25, 2019

Eric Blakley
v.
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner Social Security Administration[1]

          ORDER

          Landya B. McCafferty, United States District Judge.

         Eric 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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).

         In 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.[2] 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iii).

         At the 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).

         BACKGROUND

         A 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 here.

         I. Procedural Background

         On 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. 29, 2015).

         On 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.

         On 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 her.

         II. ALJ’s Decision

         On May 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 impairment.

         Unlike 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.

         In 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.

         As 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.

         The ALJ 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, ...


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