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Goulart v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 20, 2017

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          WILLIAM I. GARFINKEL United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Michelle Maria Goulart has filed this appeal of the adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff now moves, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for an order reversing this decision, or in the alternative remanding the matter for rehearing. [Doc. # 22]. Defendant has responded with a motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner. [Doc. # 23]. The undersigned heard oral argument on January 13, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         Legal Standard

         The standards for determining a claimant's entitlement to disability benefits, the Commissioner's five-step framework for evaluating disability claims, and the district court's review of the Commissioner's final decision are well-established. The Court is following those standards, but does not repeat them here.


         Plaintiff filed her DIB and SSI applications on October 12, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of September 14, 2011. Her claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. On September 12, 2013, Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before administrative law judge Deirdre R. Horton (the “ALJ”). On March 28, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. The Appeals Counsel denied review of the ALJ's decision, making it the final decision of the Commissioner.[1] This action followed.

         Plaintiff's DIB and SSI applications allege disability based on both physical and mental impairments; the arguments presented on appeal before this Court, however, pertain only to the ALJ's evaluation of the mental impairments. Plaintiff has a high school education. (R. 47). At the time of the hearing, she was working part time on a per diem basis. (Id.). Plaintiff last worked full time in 2008. (R. 64).

         At oral argument the parties stipulated to Plaintiff's medical background as presented in the briefs accompanying both parties' motions. The Court adopts these facts and incorporates them by reference herein.

         The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims. At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 23). She determined that any work Plaintiff performed since the alleged onset date did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. (Id.). At Step Two, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. (Id.). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 24-26). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity[2]:

Plaintiff can perform light work except she can understand, remember, and carry out simple routine tasks; can occasionally interact with the general public; and can occasionally interact directly with supervisors and co-workers.

(R. 26-33). At Step Four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. 33). Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ used the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (hereinafter the “Grids”) as a framework to find that there are other jobs in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (Id.). In making the Step Five finding, the ALJ determined that the RFC's nonexertional limitations have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled work. (Id.). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled.


         Plaintiff raises several issues on appeal, which the Court will discuss in turn.

         1. Evaluation of Plaintiff's impairments

         First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to evaluate all of her mental impairments and erred in only finding Plaintiff's bipolar disorder as severe at Step Two. Plaintiff maintains that the evidence shows she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, memory problems, posttraumatic stress disorder, and cognitive deficits following chemotherapy. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ erred by failing to assess the functional limitations of all of these mental impairments.

         The Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's Step Two analysis. While the record does show that Plaintiff has been diagnosed with mental impairments in addition to bipolar disorder, a mere diagnosis does not compel a finding that an impairment is severe. Case law instructs that a diagnosis alone does not equate to a finding of severity. See Rivers v. Astrue, 280 F. App'x 20, 22 (2d Cir. 2008) (explaining that a “mere diagnosis ...

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