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Ramos v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 3, 2017

JENNIFER RAMOS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Defendant.

          RULING ON THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER

          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Jennifer Ramos's, application for disability insurance benefits. The appeal is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).[1] Ms. Ramos now moves for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). In the alternative, Ms. Ramos seeks an order remanding her case for a rehearing. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming the decision.

         Ms. Ramos argues, among other things, that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in concluding that (1) Ms. Ramos's medical conditions did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, which would have made her per se disabled; (2) that the ALJ's finding that Ms. Ramos could perform jobs in the national economy was not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) that the ALJ did not properly apply the treating physician rule. Because I agree that the ALJ erred in determining the jobs that Ms. Ramos could perform in the national economy and misapplied the treating physician rule with regard to her treating psychiatrist, the case is REMANDED. I do not reach Ms. Ramos's remaining arguments urging reversal or remand.

         BACKGROUND

         On August 22, 2012, Ms. Ramos filed an application for disability benefits for an alleged disability. (Joint Statement of Facts, ECF No. 14-2 at 1.) On January 22, 2013, a disability adjudicator in the Social Security Administration denied her initial request for disability benefits and thereafter denied her request for reconsideration. (Id.) On May 8, 2014, Ms. Ramos appeared with counsel for a hearing before ALJ I.K. Harrington. (Id.) On July 23, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (Id.)

         The ALJ found that Ms. Ramos was a 34-year-old woman with severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, arthritis, psoriasis, asthma, and obesity. (ALJ Decision, Tr. 18, 28.) The ALJ rejected the allegations that Ms. Ramos also had severe impairments of hyperlipidemia, glucose intolerance, Vitamin D deficiency, migraines, sleep apnea, depression, heroin dependence, and opioid dependence. (Id. at 19.) Next, the ALJ determined that Ms. Ramos did not have a listed impairment, and had the following Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”):

to perform “light work” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except with sitting up to six hours, standing and walking up to four hours; frequent climbing ramps and stairs, and balancing; occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching[, ] crawling, climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolding; frequent reaching both overhead and forward with the right upper extremity, which is the dominant side and frequent fingering and handling in both upper extremities, avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibration and occasional exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poor ventilation, and is capable of simple routine tasks involving no more than simple, short instructions and occasional interaction with general public, supervisors and coworkers.

(Id. at 21, 23.) Finally, the ALJ found that although Ms. Ramos had no past relevant work, there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Ramos could perform based on her age, RFC, work experience, and limited education, and therefore she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 28-29.)

         On July 15, 2015, the appeals council denied Ms. Ramos's request for review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Joint Statement of Facts, ECF No. 14-2 at 1.) This appeal followed. Specific facts and portions of the ALJ's decision will be discussed below as necessary.

         STANDARD

         The Social Security Act establishes that benefits are payable to individuals who have a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). “The term ‘disability' means... [an] inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment....” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). To determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ must follow a five-step evaluation process as promulgated by the Commissioner.

         The five steps are as follows: (1) The Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which limits his or her mental or physical ability to do basic work activities; (3) if the claimant has a “severe impairment, ” the Commissioner must ask whether, based solely on the medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant has one of these enumerated impairments, the Commissioner will automatically consider that claimant disabled, without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience. Id. (4) if the impairment is not “listed” in the regulations, the Commissioner then asks whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he or she has the residual functional capacity to perform his or her past work; and (5) if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work, the Commissioner then determines whether there is other work the claimant could perform. Id. To be considered disabled, an individual's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot... engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Commissioner bears the burden of proof on the fifth step, while the claimant has the burden on the first four steps. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).

         “A district court reviewing a final ... decision pursuant to ... 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is performing an appellate function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842, 844 (2d Cir. 1981). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accordingly, a district court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. Wagner v. Sec 'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the court's function is to ascertain whether the correct legal principles were applied in reaching the decision, and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, that decision will be sustained, even where there may also be substantial evidence to support the plaintiffs contrary position. Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982). The Second Circuit has defined substantial evidence as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence must be “more than a mere scintilla or a touch of proof here and there in the record.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Listed Impairment

         I must first decide whether substantial evidence supported the determination that Ms Ramos's condition did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, which would have made her disabled per se at step three of the ...


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