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Higgins v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

January 8, 2020

Brooke Higgins
Andrew Saul,[1] Commissioner, Social Security Administration


          Landya McCafferty United States District Judge

         Brooke Higgins moves to reverse the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for supplemental social security income. She contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by improperly considering and weighing the medical opinions in the record. The Commissioner moves to affirm the ALJ's decision. For the reasons discussed below, the court denies the Commissioner's motion to affirm and grants Higgins's motion to reverse.


         In reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner in a social security case, the court “is limited to determining whether the [Administrative Law Judge] 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 Administrative Law Judge's factual findings as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 34 (1st Cir. 2016). “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) (internal citation omitted). The court “must uphold the Commissioner's findings if a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support her conclusion.” Id. (brackets and ellipses omitted).

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The claimant “has the burden of production and proof at the first four steps of the process.” Freeman v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 606, 608 (1st Cir. 2001). The first three steps are (1) determining whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) determining whether she has a severe impairment; and (3) determining whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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 her limitations caused by impairments, Id. § 416.920(a)(1), and her past relevant work, Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can perform her past relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled. See Id. If the claimant cannot perform her 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         A detailed factual background can be found in Higgins's statement of facts (doc. no. 9) and the Commissioner's statement of facts (doc. no. 11). The court provides a brief summary of the case here.

         Higgins initially applied for supplemental security income in July 2011; however, the claim was denied in June 2013 after Higgins failed to appear for an administrative hearing.

         On September 3, 2015, Higgins filed another application for supplemental security income, alleging a disability onset date of June 21, 2014, when she was 32 years old. She alleged she was disabled due to fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), anxiety, sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disorder, and migraine headaches. After her claim was denied at the initial level in November 2015, she requested a hearing before an ALJ.

         The ALJ held an initial hearing on July 6, 2017, and a supplemental hearing on November 21, 2017. The ALJ denied Higgins's claim for benefits in a written decision dated January 10, 2018.

         At step two, the ALJ found that Higgins had the following severe impairments: anxiety, a panic disorder, agoraphobia, PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, marijuana abuse, a back disorder, headaches, and obesity. The ALJ found that Higgins had not presented sufficient evidence to establish that her alleged fibromyalgia was a medically determinable impairment. The ALJ also found that Higgins had medically determinable, but non-severe, chronic fatigue, torticollis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, and hypothyroidism.

         The ALJ concluded Higgins retained the RFC to:

perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R 416.967(b) except she should avoid all ladders, ropes and scaffolds and should avoid all hazards, unprotected heights, etc. She is limited to simple 1 to 2 step tasks and is able to maintain attention and concentration for two-hour increments throughout an eight-hour workday and 40-hour work week, in a low stress environment (which is defined as limited to little or not change in the work setting, and limited to little or no need for the use of judgment). Should avoid interaction with the general public and can sustain ...

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