United States District Court, D. Connecticut
ELIZABETH T. LYDE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, U.S.A., Defendant.
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS TO REMAND AND AFFIRM DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
JEFFREY ALKER MEYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Plaintiff Elizabeth Lyde claims that she is disabled and cannot work as a result of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, substance dependence, obesity, carpal tunnel syndrome, and diabetes. She has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, who denied plaintiff‘s claim for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits. The Commissioner concluded that although plaintiff suffered from severe impairments and could not work in her previous jobs, she could still work in another type of job. For the reasons that follow, I will grant plaintiff‘s motion to reverse or remand the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #13), and deny defendant‘s motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #16), and I will remand the case for prompt reconsideration by the ALJ.
The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner, as well as the comprehensive factual background in Magistrate Judge Fitzsimmons‘ Recommended Ruling. Docs. #9-2; #16. Plaintiff was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1962. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade but eventually earned her GED. She has three children, the youngest of whom still lived with her at the time of her initial filing. She had many jobs over the years, but most recently worked as an overnight stocker at Wal-Mart, from which she was fired in 2008 for forgetting things.
Plaintiff was 45 years old on July 1, 2008, the date of the alleged onset of her disability. She stopped working at that time because she experienced leg pain and incontinence while working at Wal-Mart. She now cites depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, substance dependence, obesity, carpal tunnel syndrome, and diabetes as the sources of her disability.
Plaintiff‘s benefits petition was initially denied in September 2010 and upon reconsideration in February 2011. After a hearing in December 2011, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ronald J. Thomas held that plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review, which was subsequently denied in February 2013. She then filed this federal action, seeking review of the Commissioner‘s decision and asking that the Court reverse the Commissioner‘s decision or remand the case for rehearing. (Doc. #13). The Commissioner has moved to affirm its final decision (Doc. #15).
The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Holly B. Fitzsimmons, who filed a Recommended Ruling to deny plaintiff‘s motion to reverse or remand the Commissioner‘s decision and to grant defendant‘s motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. #16). Plaintiff has filed an objection to the Recommended Ruling, contending that Judge Fitzsimmons erred in affirming the ALJ‘s assessment of the severity of her mental health impairments, and by affirming the ALJ‘s failure to either consider vocational expert testimony when considering plaintiff‘s ability to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy or, alternatively, to explain why vocational expert testimony was unnecessary. Doc. #20. Although I disagree with plaintiff‘s first objection, I agree with the second, and conclude that the ALJ should have addressed whether plaintiff‘s non-exertional limitations were more than negligible such that vocational expert testimony should be considered.
This Court ''may adopt those portions of the recommended ruling to which no timely objections have been made, provided no clear error is apparent from the face of the record.'' Dafeng Hengwei Textile Co. v. Aceco Indus. & Commercial Corp., 54 F.Supp.3d 287, 291 (E.D.N.Y. 2014). Except as to the portions of Judge Fitzsimmons‘ ruling that are the subject of objection, I find no clear error here. But I must otherwise ''review[ ] the parts of the report and recommendation to which the party objected under a de novo standard of review.'' Ibid.; see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).
The Court may ''set aside the Commissioner‘s determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the decision is based on legal error.'' Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence may be defined as ''such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'' Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
To qualify for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must show that she is unable ''to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, '' and ''the impairment must be 'of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.‘'' Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d 42, 45 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 423(d)(2)(A)).
A five-step, sequential evaluation process is used to determine whether a claimant is disabled: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Social Security Administration‘s listing of impairments; (4) whether-based on a ''residual functional capacity'' assessment-the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. See McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014) (citing Social Security regulations). The claimant bears the burden of proving her case at steps one through four, while the burden shifts at step five to the Commissioner to demonstrate that there is other work that the claimant can perform. Ibid.
Here, the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2008. At step two, he determined that plaintiff‘s depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, dysthymic disorder, antisocial personality disorder, insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, status post carpal tunnel release, obesity, and polysubstance dependance constituted severe impairments and that these ''impairments are severe because they cause more than minimal functional limitations.'' Doc. #9-2 at 22.
At step three, the ALJ declined to conclude that plaintiff was per se disabled, because plaintiff did ''not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.'' Ibid. Specifically, the ALJ compared plaintiff‘s impairments to four of the listed impairments: affective disorders (Listings § 12.04); anxiety-related disorders (§ 12.06); personality disorders (§ 12.08); and substance addition disorders (§ 12.09). With certain limited ...