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Luna v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 17, 2016

LUIS G. LUNA
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS

          HOLLY B. FITZSIMMONS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Luis G. Luna brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §401 et seq. (“the Act”). Plaintiff has moved to reverse or remand the case for a rehearing. The Commissioner has moved to affirm.

         For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff’s Motion for Order Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner and Order for Remand [Doc. #14] is GRANTED. Defendant’s Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #15] is DENIED.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         The procedural history of this case is not disputed. Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on July 9, 2010, alleging disability as of August 14, 2001. [Certified Transcript of the Record, Compiled on April 15, 2014, Doc. #9 (hereinafter “Tr.”) 282]. Plaintiff alleged disability due to: trauma from a car accident, loss of memory, depression, a heart condition, metal in right hand, respiratory problems, and water in the lungs. [Tr. 301]. His SSI claim was denied initially on October 19, 2010, and upon reconsideration on November 18, 2010. [Tr. 94, 115]. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 18, 2010. [Tr. 133].

         On August 2, 2012, Administrative Law Judge James E. Thomas held a hearing at which plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. [Tr. 66-93]. Vocational expert (“VE”) Renee B. Jubrey also appeared and testified Id. On October 15, 2012, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled, and denied his claim. [Tr. 16-26]. Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the hearing decision on October 22, 2012. [Tr. 58]. On November 26, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby rendering ALJ Thomas’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [Tr. 1-4]. The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         Plaintiff, represented by counsel, timely filed this action for review and moves to reverse the Commissioner’s decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The review of a social security disability determination involves two levels of inquiry. First, the Court must decide whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in making the determination. Second, the Court must decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence. Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it is more than a “mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The reviewing court’s responsibility is to ensure that a claim has been fairly evaluated by the ALJ. Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983) (citation omitted).

         The Court does not reach the second stage of review - evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion - if the Court determines that the ALJ failed to apply the law correctly. See Norman v. Astrue, 912 F.Supp.2d 33, 70 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (“The Court first reviews the Commissioner’s decision for compliance with the correct legal standards; only then does it determine whether the Commissioner’s conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.”). “Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.” Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987).

         “[T]he crucial factors in any determination must be set forth with sufficient specificity to enable [a reviewing court] to decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence.” Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984) (alteration added) (citation omitted). The ALJ is free to accept or reject the testimony of any witness, but a “finding that the witness is not credible must nevertheless be set forth with sufficient specificity to permit intelligible plenary review of the record.” Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 260-61 (2d Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). “Moreover, when a finding is potentially dispositive on the issue of disability, there must be enough discussion to enable a reviewing court to determine whether substantial evidence exists to support that finding.” Johnston v. Colvin, Civil Action No. 3:13-CV-00073(JCH), 2014 WL 1304715, at *6 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (internal citations omitted).

         It is important to note that in reviewing the ALJ’s decision, this Court’s role is not to start from scratch. “In reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited to determining whether the SSA’s conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a correct legal standard.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “[W]hether there is substantial evidence supporting the appellant’s view is not the question here; rather, we must decide whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision.” Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 F. App’x 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013)(citations omitted).

         III. SSA LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits.

         To be considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to benefits, Mr. Luna must demonstrate that he is unable to work after a date specified “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). Such impairment or impairments must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c)(requiring that the impairment “significantly limit [ ] ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” to be considered “severe”).

         There is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4). In the Second Circuit, the test is described as follows:

First, the Secretary considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the Secretary 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 Secretary will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Secretary presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a “listed” impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam). If and only if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the Commissioner engages in the ...


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