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Healy v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 2, 2016

KARIN HEALY, Plaintiff,


          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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).


         The 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.

         Plaintiff's 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.

         Plaintiff's 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' motions.


         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). 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).

         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(a)-(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”] ¶ 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).

         Here, 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.

         The ALJ 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 claim.

         At step 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 ...

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