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Torres v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 28, 2016



Janet Bond Arterton, U.S.D.J.

Plaintiff Melanie Torres commenced this action under Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), as amended. She seeks review of the final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying her Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). On December 2, 2015, Magistrate Judge Margolis issued a Recommended Ruling [Doc. # 20] granting in part Plaintiff’s Motion [Doc. # 12] to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner and denying Defendant’s Motion [Doc. # 18] to Affirm the Commissioner’s Decision. Defendant has filed a timely objection [Doc. # 21] to the Magistrate Judge’s Recommended Ruling, requesting that the Court reject Judge Margolis’s analysis and affirm the Commissioner’s decision denying Plaintiff benefits. Plaintiff has not responded to that objection. For the reasons that follow, Defendant’s objection is overruled and the Recommended Ruling is approved and adopted in full.

I. Background

The factual and procedural background of this action is presented on pages one through five of the Recommended Ruling, which this Court incorporates by reference. Briefly, on November 16, 2009, Plaintiff applied for DIB, claiming she had been disabled since April 20, 2000, due to fibromyalgia, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and migraines. (Certified Transcript of Administrative Proceedings, dated February 11, 2014 (“Tr.”) at 98, 179-87.)

After Plaintiff’s request for benefits was twice denied, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (See Id. at 98-101, 105-08, 109-10.) That hearing took place on February 3, 2011, before ALJ Kim Griswold. (Id. at 34-74.) The ALJ denied Ms. Torres’s application for benefits on February 25, 2011, and the Decision Review Board affirmed the ALJ’s decision on May 27, 2011. (Id. at 1-4, 16-28.)

On June 30, 2011, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this case, and the case was subsequently voluntarily remanded for further administrative proceedings. (Id. at 1107- 12.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council remanded the case to ALJ Griswold to determine whether Plaintiff’s fibromyalgia constituted a severe impairment, in part by obtaining testimony from a medical expert. (Id. at 1114-18.)

To that end, on June 20, 2013, ALJ Griswold held a second hearing. (See Id. at 1030-80.) During the hearing, ALJ Griswold informed Plaintiff that medical expert Dr. John A. Pella was going to testify by telephone. (Id. at 1033-37.) When Plaintiff-who had received no prior notice of the expert’s intent to testify telephonically-objected, the ALJ offered her a choice: either question Dr. Pella telephonically or take no testimony from Dr. Pella and have the ALJ rely solely on Dr. Pella’s interrogatories and Medical Source Statement, which Plaintiff asserted she had never received. (Id.) Plaintiff chose the latter option. (Id.) On September 27, 2013, the ALJ again denied Plaintiff’s claim, relying in part on Dr. Pella’s opinion, as expressed in the interrogatories and Medical Source Statement. (See Id. at 998-1021.)

II. Standard of Review

A. Standard of Review of a Magistrate Judge’s Recommended Ruling

The Court reviews de novo those portions of the Recommended Ruling to which an objection is made, and may adopt, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the Recommended Ruling. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

B. Standard of Review of a Social Security Disability Determination

This Court will “set aside the ALJ’s decision only where 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 more than a mere scintilla’ and ‘means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The substantial evidence standard also applies to inferences and conclusions that are drawn from findings of fact. See Gonzalez v. Apfel, 23 F.Supp.2d 179, 189 (D. Conn. 1998).

The Social Security Act provides that every individual who suffers from a “disability” is entitled to disability insurance benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). “Disability” is defined as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A).

In reviewing disability claims, the agency must follow a five-step process. First, the agency will determine whether a claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity and second, whether the claimant has an impairment which is of the required duration and which significantly limits her ability to work. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity or does not have a sufficiently severe impairment, the claim will be denied. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(c). Third, the medical evidence of the claimant’s impairment is compared with a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work, and if the ...

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