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Verret v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 28, 2016

WANDA VERRET, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge

Plaintiff Wanda Verret appealed from the adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for supplemental security income. On June 2, 2015, U.S. Magistrate Judge William I. Garfinkel issued a recommended ruling (the “Recommended Ruling”) recommending that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed (doc. # 20). Verret filed an objection and a memorandum in support of that objection with respect to particular portions of the Recommended Ruling on June 15, 2015 (doc. # 21). For the reasons set forth below, Verret’s objection is overruled. The Recommended Ruling is adopted and the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Background

I assume the parties’ familiarity with the underlying facts. A full statement of the relevant facts can be found in Magistrate Judge Garfinkel’s Recommended Ruling. See Recommended Ruling, Verret v. Colvin, 3:14-cv-234 (SRU) (doc. # 20).

II. Standard of Review

“In the face of an objection to a Magistrate Judge’s recommended ruling, the [d]istrict [c]ourt makes a de novo determination of those portions of the recommended ruling to which an objection is made.” Smith v. Barnhart, 406 F.Supp.2d 209, 212 (D. Conn. 2005); see also Burden v. Astrue, 588 F.Supp.2d 269, 271 (D. Conn. 2008). The court may adopt, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the Magistrate Judge’s recommended ruling. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b).

A district court may enter a judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited. Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998). It is not the court’s function to determine de novo whether the claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Rather, the court must review the record to determine first whether the correct legal standard was applied and then whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”); see Bubnis v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 177, 181 (2d Cir. 1998); Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998).

When determining whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court must consider the entire record, examining the evidence from both sides. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence need not compel the Commissioner’s decision; rather substantial evidence need only be evidence that “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion” being challenged. Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “Even where the administrative record may also adequately support contrary findings on particular issues, the ALJ’s factual findings must be given conclusive effect so long as they are supported by substantial evidence.” Genier v. Astrue, 606 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

III. Discussion

Verret raises four objections to Magistrate Judge Garfinkel’s Recommended Ruling, arguing that the ruling errs by: (1) finding no duty to obtain vocational expert testimony; (2) finding Verret’s case should not be granted under a listing; (3) failing to accept an opinion from a treating doctor, or treating it as an issue reserved to the commissioner; and (4) equating a slight and temporary improvement with the ability to do work. Each objection is considered in turn.

A. Vocational Expert Testimony

First, Verret objects to the Recommended Ruling on the basis that it found no duty for the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to hear testimony from a vocational expert. Ordinarily, the ALJ will rely on the Medical Vocational Guidelines, or “grids, ” found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, to determine whether there are a substantial number of jobs available in the national economy for a particular claimant to perform. In some cases, however, “a claimant’s nonexertional impairments significantly limit the range of work permitted by his [or her] exertional limitations, ” and therefore “the grids obviously will not accurately determine disability status because they fail to take into account claimant’s nonexertional impairments.” Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d 601, 605 (2d Cir. 1986). In such a case, the ALJ will need to hear from a vocational expert.

The ALJ in this case relied on the grids rather than a vocational expert, and Judge Garfinkel rejected Verret’s contention that such reliance was improper and that a vocational expert was necessary. The basis of Verret’s objection is that her nonexertional limitations, which the ALJ acknowledged, are significant enough to prevent her from doing unskilled work as described in SSR 85-15 (S.S.A. 1985). The ALJ found that Verret’s Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) allowed her to “perform work at all exertional levels involving simple, routine repetitive work with one or two-step instruction; involving only occasional interaction with the public, co-workers and supervisors.” (R. 28). Judge Garfinkel found that RFC to be in accord with the description of unskilled work in SSR 85-15, which requires the ability “to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and to deal with changes in a routine work setting. A substantial loss of ability to meet any of these basic work-related activities would severely limit the potential occupational base” (emphasis added).

Verret objects to Judge Garfinkel’s interpretation of those two descriptions as “in accord, ” contending that the ALJ’s description of her RFC is “far more limiting” than that description of unskilled work. I disagree. The ALJ’s description of her RFC allowing “simple” work with “one or two-step” instructions and “only occasional interaction” with others is in accord with the description of unskilled work that requires following “simple instructions”- especially in light of the fact that such jobs “ordinarily involve dealing primarily with objects, rather than with data or people.” (SSR 85-15). If Verret’s RFC is somewhat more limited than the full range of unskilled work as ...

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