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Davis v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 21, 2016

KEITH DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          RULING AND ORDER

          STEFAN R. UNDERHILL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Keith Davis appealed from the adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. After the Commissioner filed her Answer, Davis moved for judgment on the pleadings (doc. # 15). Davis accompanied his motion with a statement of facts (doc. # 17). The Commissioner filed a cross motion to affirm the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), who had denied Davis' application. On August 17, 2016, I held oral argument on the parties' cross-motions and took the matter under advisement. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion to affirm the ALJ's decision is granted and Davis' motion to vacate the ALJ's decision and remand the case is denied.

         I. Background

         Davis filed his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental social security benefits on October 2, 2012, alleging an onset date of March 22, 2011. Davis claims that he suffers from various respiratory diseases and a degenerative disc disease that causes pain in his lumbar spine (lower back). Davis also alleges a past history of depression and alcohol abuse. The existence of Davis' conditions is not in dispute.

         After conducting a thorough review of Davis' medical history, the ALJ concluded that Davis' testimony regarding the severity of his functional limitations lacked credibility. Based on that determination, the ALJ held that Davis had the ability to perform sedentary work in an environment that is free of moderate to extreme environmental irritants, such as fumes, odors, dusts, and gasses. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Davis' condition did not render him unable to find suitable work notwithstanding his functional limitations. Accordingly, the ALJ held that Davis was not disabled.

         Davis appeals the ALJ's decision, asserting that it was not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Davis contends that the ALJ erred in making her credibility assessment of Davis. Davis' memorandum in support of his motion points to specific instances in which, he alleges, the ALJ misconstrued, misrepresented, or omitted objective medical evidence that would corroborate the credibility of Davis' subjective statements and testimony. Had the ALJ properly considered such evidence, Davis argues, she would have found Davis credible and would have relied on his testimony to conclude that Davis was unable to perform sedentary work.

         II. Standard of Review

         The standard of review of a Social Security disability determination under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is well settled. It involves two levels of inquiry. First, the court must decide whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in making her determination. Second, the court must decide whether the Commissioner's determination is supported by substantial evidence. Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998); Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127 (2d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). It need not compel the Commissioner's decision; rather it is evidence that “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion” being challenged. Id.; see also Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002). In determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court must consider the entire record, examining the evidence from both sides. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988).

         It is not the court's function to determine de novo whether the claimant was disabled nor to substitute its opinion for that of the Commissioner. Rather, the court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether it is based on an erroneous legal standard. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). If the court finds that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and that the correct legal standards were applied, that decision must be upheld, even if substantial evidence supporting the plaintiff's position also exists. See Alston v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 122, 126 (2d Cir. 1990).

         III. Discussion

         A. Relevant Law

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must conduct a “five-step sequential evaluation process.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1), 416.920(a)(1). Step one requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). Step two requires the ALJ to consider the medical severity of the claimant's alleged impairment(s) to determine whether it is sufficiently severe and meets the duration requirement in section 404.1509. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three also requires the ALJ to consider the medical severity of the claimant's alleged impairment(s) and whether such condition meets or equals a specific impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Before going from step three to step four, the ALJ must identify a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) that is based on the ALJ's evaluation of objective medical evidence and the claimant's subjective evaluation of his impairment(s). Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 404.1520(e), 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(e). Based on the RFC, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is still able to perform his or her past relevant work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At step five, if the ALJ determines that the claimant can no longer perform his or her past relevant work, the ALJ must consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). Often that step is evaluated using a vocational expert who testifies to the availability of jobs for a claimant given his or her relevant characteristics and experience. McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 151 (2d Cir. 2014).

         Davis challenges the ALJ's decision at step five of the evaluation process. Davis' primary contention, however, concerns the ALJ's identification of Davis' RFC, on which the ALJ relied in evaluating step five.

         A plaintiff's RFC is “what an individual can still do despite his or her limitations . . . .” Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Ordinarily, RFC is the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis, and the RFC assessment must include a discussion of the individual's abilities on that basis. A “regular and continuing basis” means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule.

Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). RFC is “an assessment based upon all of the relevant evidence . . . [which evaluates a claimant's] ability to meet certain demands of jobs, such as physical demands, mental demands, sensory requirements, and other functions . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 220.120(a).

         When arriving at an appropriate RFC, the ALJ must undertake a two-step process to evaluate the claimant's assertions of pain and other limitations. Genier v. Astrue, 606 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir. 2010); Titles II & XVI: Evaluation of Symptoms in Disability Claims: Assessing the Credibility of an Individual's Statements, SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186, at *2 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant “suffers from a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged. Genier, 606 F.3d at 49. That is because subjective assertions of pain, alone, cannot be the basis of a finding of disability. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a)). Next, if the ALJ has found that the claimant suffers such an impairment, the ALJ must evaluate the “intensity and persistence of [the claimant's] symptoms . . . [to] determine how [the claimant's] symptoms limit [his or her] capacity for work[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(1), 416.929(c)(1).

         In evaluating the intensity and persistence of the claimant's symptoms, the ALJ must consider the entire record, including objective medical evidence and the claimant's subjective reports of pain and other limitations. Genier, 606 F.3d at 49. Though objective evidence is preferred, and must be carefully considered, the ALJ may not reject a claimant's statements about the intensity and persistence of his or her pain or other symptoms, or about the effect those symptoms have on his or her ability to perform work, “solely because the available objective evidence does not substantiate such statements.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(2), 416.929(c)(2).

         Often, it will be impossible to objectively document a claimant's pain or other symptoms that have a limiting effect on his or her ability to perform work. Id. at §§ 404.1529(c)(3), 416.929(c)(3). In such circumstances, the ALJ must “make a finding on the credibility of the individual's statements based on a consideration of the entire case record.” SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186, at *2; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), 404.1529(c)(4), 416.929(c)(3), 404.1529(c)(4).

         In undertaking an assessment of the claimant's credibility, the ALJ must consider evidence relating to the following factors:

(i) the claimant's daily activities;
(ii) the location, duration, frequency, and intensity of the claimant's pain or other symptoms;
(iii) precipitating and aggravating factors;
(iv) the type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication the claimant takes or has taken to alleviate their pain or other symptoms;
(v) treatment, other than medication, the claimant receives or has received for relief of their pain or other symptoms;
(vi) any measures the claimant used or has used to relieve their pain or other symptoms (e.g., lying flat on their back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes every ...

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