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Morales v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 3, 2017

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          WILLIAM I. GARFINKEL United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Desiree Morales 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. # 16]. Defendant has responded with a motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner. [Doc. # 17]. The undersigned heard oral argument on January 25, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings.

         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 in September 2009, alleging a disability onset date of July 13, 2009. Her claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before administrative law judge Ronald J. Thomas (“ALJ Thomas”) on April 15, 2011. On May 24, 2011, ALJ Thomas issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. The Appeals Counsel remanded the matter on September 16, 2011. ALJ Thomas held a second hearing on March 15, 2012, and issued a second unfavorable decision on April 26, 2012. On July 26, 2013, the Appeals Council again remanded the matter for a new hearing, directing it be assigned to a different administrative law judge. On December 16, 2013, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a third hearing before administrative law judge Matthew Kuperstein (“the ALJ”). The ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims on March 21, 2014 (“the ALJ's decision”). The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision on November 5, 2015, making it the final decision of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was thirty-one years old on the alleged onset date. (R. 31). She has completed high school and has some vocational training as an administrative assistant. (R. 31, 87). She last worked in July 2009 as a senior bank teller. (R. 87-88). Plaintiff testified she stopped working because of migraines and anxiety. (R. 89). She has past work experience as a housekeeper, bank teller, and supervisor at a fast food restaurant. (R. 89-90).

         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. 24). At Step Two, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: migraine headaches; cephalgia (cluster headaches); fibromyalgia; major depression, and more recently posttraumatic stress disorder. (Id.). The ALJ also noted a history of sinus surgery with a history of rhinitis and rhino-sinusitis that are improved and nonsevere, nonsevere arthritis in her lower extremities, and nonsevere intermittent back and hip pain. (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. 25-26). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity[1]:

Plaintiff can perform sedentary work except she can stand/walk for two to three hours per day; she can sit for six hours per day; she should avoid overhead reaching with her dominant right hand; she should not perform hazardous work such as working at unprotected heights or operating dangerous machinery; she can understand, remember, and perform simple instructions and make simple, work-related decisions; she should have no interactions with the general public, but can perform work which involves little collaboration or teamwork with other workers; she can relate adequately, for task purposes, with coworkers and supervisors.

(R. 26-31). At Step Four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work (R. 31). Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) to find that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform given her age, education level, and RFC.[2] (R. 31-33). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled.


         Plaintiff raises several issues on appeal which pertain to the sufficiency of the RFC. The Court agrees with Plaintiff that the ALJ's RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence. One of Plaintiff's mental health treatment providers, Dr. Parekh, completed a mental RFC assessment checklist on October 13, 2013. He opined that Plaintiff had some moderate limitations in the areas of understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence, social interaction, and adaptation. (R. 1714-15). He found no marked limitations in any of these areas. (Id.). ...

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