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Connole v. Astrue

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 25, 2016

LISA CONNOLE, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant

RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS TO REMAND AND AFFIRM DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

JEFFREY ALKER MEYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Lisa Connole claims she is disabled and cannot work as a result of numerous ailments, particularly severe lower back, coccyx and knee pain, as well as gastrointestinal problems. 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 disability benefits. For the reasons that follow, I will deny plaintiff‘s motion to reverse or remand the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #7), and grant defendant‘s motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #10).

Background

The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner, as well as the comprehensive factual background set forth in the 42-page recommended ruling of Magistrate Judge Martinez. Doc. #13. Plaintiff was born in Nebraska in 1963. Starting in 1997, she was employed as a computer technical support person until she claims she became disabled and lost her job in 2008.

In March of 2008, following more than a year of suffering from various ailments such as lower back pain, plaintiff fell. At this point, she alleges she became disabled and unable to continue working as a result of, among other things, ''chronic lumbar pain.'' Record at 119.

Plaintiff‘s benefits petition was initially denied in December 2008 and upon reconsideration in May 2009. After a hearing in March 2010, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) James E. Thomas held that plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and regulations. Plaintiff then filed this federal action, seeking review of the Commissioner‘s decision and asking that the Court reverse the Commissioner‘s decision and remand the case for rehearing. Doc. #7. The Commissioner has moved to affirm his final decision. Doc. #10.

The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Donna F. Martinez, who filed a ruling recommending denial of plaintiff‘s motion to reverse or remand the Commissioner‘s decision and granting of defendant‘s motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner. Doc. #13. Plaintiff has filed an objection to the recommended ruling, contending that Judge Martinez erred in affirming the ALJ‘s ruling; plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to make sufficiently specific findings, improperly weighed the opinions of plaintiff‘s treating physicians, improperly determined plaintiff‘s credibility, and improperly determined plaintiff‘s residual functional capacity. Doc. #14. Because I agree with Judge Martinez‘s conclusions in all respects, I will adopt her recommended ruling and affirm the Commissioner‘s decision.

Discussion

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 portion of Judge Martinez' ruling that has been 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 is ''more than a mere scintilla'' and means ''such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'' Lesterhuis v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 83, 87 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam).

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)). ''[W]ork exists in the national economy when it exists in significant numbers either in the region where [a claimant] live[s] or in several other regions of the country'' and ''when there is a significant number of jobs (in one or more occupations) having requirements which [a claimant] [is] able to meet with [her] physical or mental abilities and vocational qualifications.'' 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566(b); see also Kennedy v. Astrue, 343 F.App'x 719, 722 (2d Cir. 2009).

To evaluate a claimant's disability, and to determine whether he or she qualifies for benefits, the agency engages in the following five-step process:

First, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Where the claimant is not, the Commissioner next considers whether the claimant has a ''severe impairment'' that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment that is listed [in the so-called ''Listings''] in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. If the claimant has a listed impairment, the Commissioner will consider the claimant disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Commissioner presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a listed impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, she has the residual functional capacity to perform her past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform her past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to determine whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122-23 (2d Cir. 2012) (alteration in original) (citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). In applying this framework, if a claimant can be found disabled or not disabled at a particular step, a decision will be made without proceeding to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proving her case at steps one through four, while at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to ...


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