United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING AND ORDER
N. CHATIGNY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Kathryn Ferris Stergue brings this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a final decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for
disability insurance and supplemental security income
benefits. Magistrate Judge Martinez has issued a recommended
ruling that plaintiff’s motion to reverse the
Commissioner’s decision be denied and that
defendant’s motion to affirm the decision be granted.
Plaintiff has filed an objection to the recommended ruling
and defendant has responded. For reasons that follow, the
recommended ruling is approved and adopted.
1988 and the mid-2000s, plaintiff was employed as a dental
hygienist. Since then, her ability to work has been adversely
affected by a number of impairments. Symptoms of
fibromyalgia, which plaintiff has experienced since the mid-
1990s, worsened after a cerebral hemorrhage in 2004. R.
851-52. Obesity contributed to pain in her back, legs and
neck and complicated other ailments. She experienced edema in
her legs, developed degenerative disc disease in her back,
and had trouble in her left shoulder that compromised her
range of motion. Id. This constellation of problems
increased in severity after she had a bad fall and car
accident. Id. Emotional distress accompanied the
plaintiff's physical infirmities: she began to suffer
from depression and anxiety attacks, which occasionally
caused her to remain in bed for a day or two at a time.
troubles prevented her from continuing to work as a dental
hygienist and she has not been formally employed for any
significant period of time since 2006. In the years since, a
number of doctors, including mental health professionals,
have credited her complaints and documented her struggles. R.
853-56. But at the same time, plaintiff has almost never been
unable to function from day to day. At various points since
she stopped working as a hygienist, she has been able to
serve as primary caregiver to her sick father, to socialize,
and to work for a dog-walking business she started with her
roommate. R. 857. She has also regularly participated in
religious services and instructed others in Bible study.
plaintiff filed her first application for disability benefits
in 2007. After several years of review at multiple levels and
the filing of two more applications, an administrative law
judge (“ALJ”) determined that plaintiff was not
disabled and denied her applications for disability insurance
and supplemental security income benefits.
contends that the ALJ erred in his determination that she is
not disabled. Her argument rests on four different grounds.
First, she argues that the ALJ erred in assessing the
severity of her impairments. Second, she argues that the ALJ
improperly declined to credit some of her testimony. Third,
she argues that the ALJ failed to comply with the treating
physician rule. Finally, she contends that the ALJ should
have called a vocational expert to determine whether she is
able to work instead of relying on the Medical Vocational
Guidelines. In the recommended ruling, Magistrate Judge
Martinez concludes that the ALJ’s finding should be
affirmed over plaintiff’s objections.
Standard of Review
Court may set aside the ALJ’s decision "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 omitted). Substantial evidence
means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Zabala
v. Astrue, 595 F.3d 402, 408 (2d Cir. 2010). This
Court's role is not to reweigh the evidence. Rather, the
ALJ’s decision must be affirmed "if it is based
upon substantial evidence even if the evidence would also
support a decision for the plaintiff." Bellamy v.
Apfel, 110 F.Supp.2d 81, 87 (D. Conn. 2000). When a
decision “rests on adequate findings supported by
evidence having rational probative force, ” a court may
“not substitute [its] judgment for that of the
Commissioner.” Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d
578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002).
person who is disabled is entitled to benefits under the
Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1), 1381a.
A "disability" is "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." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A),
1382c(a)(3)(A). Under the Social Security regulations,
determining whether an individual is disabled entails five
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is
currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is
not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant
has a 'severe impairment' which significantly limits
his 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 which is listed in Appendix 1 of the
regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the
[Commissioner] will consider him 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, he has
the residual functional capacity to perform his past work.
Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work,
the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other
work that the claimant could perform.
Rivera v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d 719, 722 (2d Cir.
1983). With respect to the first four steps, the claimant
bears the burden of proof. But once the claimant shows at the
fourth step that she cannot perform her past work, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show the existence
of other work suited to the claimant's abilities.
Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008).
case, the ALJ's five-step evaluation proceeded as
follows. First, he found that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since December 2006. He then
found that she suffered from a number of "severe
impairments, " including fibromyalgia, shoulder
impingement, obesity, episodes of cellulitis, sleep apnea,
depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive
disorder. The ALJ found that these impairments did not meet
or medically exceed the "listed impairments" in 20
CFR, Pt. 404. R. 849. He determined that the plaintiff had
the "residual functional capacity to perform sedentary
work . . . except she can only frequently use her upper
extremities for reaching. She is limited to simple
instructions and can perform routine, repetitive tasks."
R. 850. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff could not
perform her past relevant work as a dental hygienist. At step