R. Civ. P. 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, both motions for judgment on the pleadings are DENIED. The Secretary's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for a rehearing in accordance with the following discussion.
Plaintiff Domingo Lugo is a 49-year-old man who was born in Puerto Rico and emigrated to the United States in 1962. Although he completed ten or eleven years of schooling in Puerto Rico, his ability to communicate in English is limited. (Tr. at 30, 189, 203.) Lugo worked for about nine years as a casket polisher, eleven years as a stock clerk in a warehouse, and about one year as a sales clerk at a produce warehouse. (Tr. at 143.) In 1989, he was diagnosed with a central retinal vein occlusion in his right eye, (Tr. at 156), which progressed to secondary glaucoma and ultimately to blindness in that eye. (Tr. at 264.) Lugo also has a long history of hypertension (elevated blood pressure), suffers from asthma and osteoarthritis of the knees, and claims that he experiences headaches, dizziness, and frequent, intense pain in both eyes.
Lugo stopped working in January of 1990 and filed for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on January 25, 1990. His applications were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 51-53, 59-64, 63-71, 73-76). Lugo requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge on both applications and appeared before ALJ Peter F. Crispino on January 2, 1991. At the hearing, Lugo testified about his education, his ability to communicate in English, his past work experience, and the nature and extent of his medical problems. (Tr. at 28-45.) The ALJ found that Lugo was not disabled and denied benefits, (Tr. at 15-20), and this finding was adopted by the Commissioner. Lugo then sought review by the Appeals Council, which in 1992 remanded the case for further consideration.
A second hearing was held before ALJ Louis V. Zamora on April 12, 1993. Lugo again testified about his work experience, education, and physical impairments. (Tr. at 182-238.) Lugo stated that on a typical day, his sole activities consist of listening to the radio, talking with his wife and son, and napping. (Tr. at 198-200.) He said that all of his meals are prepared by his wife. Although he is able to feed and dress himself, (Tr. at 197-198), he asserted that he cannot do housework and cannot take public transportation by himself because of his limited eyesight. (Tr. at 189, 203.) He further testified that his other symptoms--chiefly dizziness, headaches, and pain in his eyes and legs--render him incapable even of reading or watching television.
A vocational expert, Bala Carr, also testified at the hearing. Carr stated that Lugo could not be expected to return to his past work, but that he could perform certain types of sedentary work that did not require fine visual acuity or exposure to dangerous or moving vehicles or machinery. (Tr. at 177.) As examples of the type of work that Lugo could perform, Carr cited "inside parking lot cashier," "inside newsstand salesperson," and "order caller" in a warehouse, large repair site or retail location. (Tr. at 210-24.)
The ALJ found that Lugo was not disabled and denied benefits. (Tr. at 173-179.) The ALJ concurred with the vocational expert that Lugo could perform limited types of sedentary work, and concluded that a substantial number of jobs existed in the national economy which Lugo could still perform. The ALJ further determined that Lugo's reports of pain and dizziness were "not credible with respect to severity." The AM's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, and Lugo now seeks judicial review of that determination.
SCOPE OF JUDICIAL REVIEW
Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is strictly limited; the reviewing court may not decide de novo whether the claimant is disabled, but rather must determine whether the Commissioner applied the appropriate legal standards and whether the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). "The findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842, 91 S. Ct. 1420 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229, 83 L. Ed. 126, 59 S. Ct. 206 (1938)).
A finding of legal error is cause for remand, even if substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's factual findings. Johnson, 817 F.2d at 986; see also Northcutt v. Califano, 581 F.2d 164, 167 (8th Cir. 1978). Moreover, a finding that the Commissioner has failed to specify the basis for her conclusions is an equally compelling cause for remand. "It is self-evident that a determination by the [Commissioner] must contain a sufficient explanation of [her] reasoning to permit the reviewing court to judge the adequacy of [her] conclusions." Rivera v. Sullivan, 771 F. Supp. 1339, 1354 (S.D.N.Y. 1991); see also White v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 910 F.2d 64, 65 (2d Cir. 1990); Thorne v. Weinberger, 530 F.2d 580, 582 (4th Cir. 1976); Baerga v. Richardson, 500 F.2d 309, 312-13 (3d Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 420 U.S. 931, 43 L. Ed. 2d 403, 95 S. Ct. 1133 (1975).
Based on the record before me, I find that the Commissioner committed both types of error and conclude that remand is appropriate.
A. Determination of plaintiff's English-speaking ability
In determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act, an ALJ must begin with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines found in Appendix 2 of 20 C.F.R. Subpart P. These guidelines, also known as "grid rules," are a set of formulae used to determine whether a given claimant is disabled or healthy enough to perform work. The rules take into account such factors as age, education level, previous work experience, and physical limitations. Decker v. Harris, 647 F.2d 291, 296 (2d Cir. 1981).
Before slotting a claimant into a particular grid rule, however, the ALJ must first determine whether the claimant is conversant and literate in English. Vega v. Harris, 636 F.2d 900, 903-904 (2d Cir. 1981); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1564(b)(5), 416.964(b)(5). This finding is pivotal because it dictates which grid rule the ALJ will use as a framework for decisionmaking, and which type of testimony he will solicit from a vocational expert, if one is required. The ALJ is authorized to rely on the relevant grid rule to guide his evaluation of whether the claimant is disabled.
In this case, the ALJ stated that he relied on the grid rules in evaluating Lugo. The record contains strong evidence, however, that the ALJ relied on the wrong rule.
In assessing Lugo's language abilities, the ALJ found that Lugo had a "limited ability to communicate in English and to read and write English." (Tr. at 178.) Hence, the ALJ relied on Rules 201.20 and 201.26 as a "framework" for his decision that Lugo was not disabled. (Tr. at 177.) Rules 201.20 and 201.26 apply to claimants who are "at least literate and able to communicate in English;" such individuals necessarily have a wider range of employment opportunities than non-English-speakers. The record indicates, however, that Lugo is neither literate nor even minimally conversant in English.
At both hearings before the ALJ, Lugo testified exclusively in Spanish through the aid of an interpreter. As Lugo testified, his formal education was acquired entirely in Spanish in Puerto Rico. He is literate in Spanish, but his ability to communicate in English is severely limited. (Tr. at 192, 203-204.) In his past jobs, Lugo communicated almost exclusively in Spanish, and when he had to deal with English-speaking customers, he sought assistance from other Spanish-speaking employees. (Id.) Lugo testified that he can neither read nor write in English--a statement that is undisputed in the record. When he worked as a sales clerk at the produce warehouse, he could recognize and copy certain words from boxes of produce, but he could not understand them. (Tr. at 203-204.)
The AM did not specify the basis of his finding that Lugo could both speak and read some English. The ALJ did, however, conduct the following exchange with Lugo:
ALJ: Now, Mr. Lugo, dealing with all the customers, now, you speak some English, is that correct?
Lugo: A little.