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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 18, 2016

DION JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

I. Introduction

This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the application of the plaintiff, Dion Johnson, for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). It is brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

Johnson moves for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). In the alternative, Johnson seeks an order remanding his case for a rehearing. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision.[1]

The issues presented are whether: (1) the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) properly applied the treating physician rule when she evaluated two reports from the plaintiff’s treating sources; (2) the ALJ properly evaluated the credibility of the plaintiff’s reported side-effects from medication; and (3) the ALJ properly assessed the job market and the availability of jobs that Johnson could perform with his residual functional capacity when the ALJ presented a hypothetical question to a vocational expert.

For the following reasons, Johnson’s motion for an order reversing or remanding the ALJ’s decision is granted in part and denied in part, and the Commissioner’s motion for an order affirming that decision is denied. As discussed below, a remand is required so that the ALJ may apply the treating physician rule. Because I remand to enable the ALJ to apply explicitly the treating physician rule, I do not address the remaining issues.

II. Facts

Mr. Johnson suffers from chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and obesity. (R. 118.) On July 30, 2011, the plaintiff applied for monthly SSI benefit payments. (Id. at 283-91.) The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied the claim initially and upon reconsideration. (Id. at 192-207.) The plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on February 28, 2013. (Id. at 141, 220-22.) The ALJ determined on March 22, 2013, that Johnson was not disabled. (Id. at 113-27.) The Appeals Council denied Johnson’s request for review on September 23, 2014, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-4.) This appeal followed.

III. Scope of Review

District courts perform an appellate function when reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842, 844 (2d Cir. 1981). A reviewing court will uphold an ALJ’s decision unless it is based upon legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence. Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). “‘Substantial evidence’ is less than a preponderance, but ‘more than a mere scintilla’ and as much as ‘a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Crossman v. Astrue, 783 F.Supp.2d 300, 303 (D. Conn. 2010) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a district court must “take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); see also New York v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 903 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990) (stating that the court is required to “review the record as a whole” in assessing whether the evidence supports the Commissioner’s position) (citations omitted). Still, the ALJ need not “reconcile every conflicting shred of medical testimony . . . .” Miles v. Harris, 645 F.2d 122, 124 (2d Cir. 1981). In sum, “the role of the district court is quite limited and substantial deference is to be afforded the Commissioner’s decision.” Morris v. Barnhardt, No. 02 CIV. 0377 AJP, 2002 WL 1733804, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2002). Further, if the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, that decision will be sustained, even where there may also be substantial evidence to support the plaintiff’s contrary position. Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982). Courts cannot supply a new or different rationale for an administrative agency’s decision. S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 94-95 (1943).

To be considered disabled, an individual’s impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot . . . engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). To determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the SSA, the ALJ must follow a five-step evaluation process as promulgated by the Commissioner.[2]

IV. The Administrative Law Judge’s Decision

The ALJ determined that Johnson was not disabled even though one source opined that Johnson could never stand or walk, and could only sit for one hour in an eight-hour day. (R. 117, 124.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Johnson had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 29, 2011, when he applied for benefits. (Id. at 118.) At step two, the ALJ found that Johnson had severe impairments, namely chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and obesity. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Johnson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 120-21. At step four, the ALJ determined that Johnson had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b), except that he can occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, kneel, balance, climb ramps and stairs, and tolerate occasional exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery. (Id. at 121-25.) The ALJ found that Johnson cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or tolerate exposure to extreme cold and heat. (Id.) As part of step four, the ALJ found that Johnson could not perform his past relevant work as an automobile detailer. (Id. at 125.) At step five, the ALJ found ...

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