United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS TO REMAND AND AFFIRM DECISION
OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge
Karin Healy claims that she is disabled and cannot work as a
result of degenerative joint disease, chronic back pain,
heart attack, fibromyalgia, morbid obesity, and mental
illness. She has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the
defendant Commissioner of Social Security, who denied
plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits. The
Commissioner concluded that plaintiff was not disabled before
the date that she was last insured for Social Security
disability benefits. For the reasons that follow, I will deny
plaintiff's motion to reverse or remand the decision of
the Commissioner (Doc. #15), and grant defendant's motion
to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #18).
Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner.
See Doc. #12-1 through Doc. #12-9. Plaintiff is a
53-year-old woman who lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Plaintiff earned her nursing license in 1982 and worked as a
licensed practical nurse until she was fired in 2005. Between
2005 and 2008, plaintiff was mostly unemployed. In 2007, she
got a job providing care to a bedridden man, but she was able
to complete only two days of work. In 2008, she worked for
several months selling newspapers. She also worked briefly in
2008 caring for an elderly couple.
alleged onset date of her disability is April 17, 2008.
Plaintiff has not worked at all since late 2008, in part
because of physical problems stemming from a fall down the
stairs that year. Doc. #12-3 at 47. She has received
treatment since at least 2007 for a range of physical and
mental health conditions. Plaintiff lives with her husband,
who cares for her and manages their household. She currently
receives Social Security benefits.
application for disability benefits was initially denied in
October 2012 and upon reconsideration in February 2013.
Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at a hearing in
March 2014 before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ronald J.
Thomas. In May 2014, the ALJ held that plaintiff was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review in June 2014. In
August 2015, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's
request for review. Plaintiff then filed this federal action
asking the Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision
or remand the case for rehearing. Doc. #15. In response, the
Commissioner has moved to affirm the Social Security
Administration's final decision. Doc. #18. On August 26,
2016, this Court heard oral argument on the parties'
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). Absent a legal error, this Court must
uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by
substantial evidence and even if this Court might have ruled
differently had it considered the matter in the first
instance. See Eastman v. Barnhart, 241 F.Supp.2d
160, 168 (D. Conn. 2003).
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(a)-(b); see also Kennedy v. Astrue,
343 F.App'x 719, 722 (2d Cir. 2009).
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”] ¶ 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. §
404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proving her
case at steps one through four; at step five, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that there is other
work that the claimant can perform. See McIntyre
v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).
before undertaking the five-step inquiry, the ALJ determined
that the date that plaintiff was last insured (her
“date last insured” or “DLI”) was
December 31, 2010. Neither party disputes the DLI
determination. The relevant time period for determining
whether plaintiff was disabled for purposes of her
entitlement to disability insurance benefits, then, runs from
the alleged date of the onset of her disability of April 17,
2008, through the DLI of December 31, 2010.
determined at step one that plaintiff did not engage in
substantial gainful activity during the relevant time period.
At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the
following “severe impairments” during the
relevant time period: obesity, degenerative joint disease,
fibromyalgia, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and
history of substance abuse. The ALJ determined that a number
of plaintiff's other conditions did not constitute severe
impairments, including diabetes mellitus, hepatitis,
hypertension, myocardial infarction, sleep apnea, headaches,
GERD, obesity, breast cancer, and deep vein thrombosis. The
ALJ also noted that some of plaintiff's conditions
(including breast cancer, pulmonary embolism, and deep vein
thrombosis) were not present at all prior to plaintiff's
DLI, making these conditions not relevant to her disability
three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff “did not have
an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.”
Doc. #12-3 at 18. Specifically, the ALJ compared
plaintiff's symptoms to the following listed impairments:
major dysfunction of a joint (Listings § 1.02);
degenerative disc disease (§ 1.04); pulmonary disease
(§ 3.02); affective disorders (§ 12.04);
anxiety-related disorders (§ 12.06); substance addiction
disorders (§ 12.09); and chronic obstructive
inflammatory arthritis (§ 14.09). The ALJ concluded that
plaintiff's impairments did not meet the requirements of
any of these listings, even when considered in combination