United States District Court, D. Connecticut
SHARYL A. CUMMINGS BELTON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
RULING ON THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND
THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE
Dominic J. Squatrito United States District Judge.
an administrative appeal following the denial of an
application filed by the plaintiff, Sharyl A. Cummings Belton
(“Belton”), for disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”). It is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).
now moves for judgment on the pleadings, seeking an order
reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration (“Commissioner”). In the
alternative, Belton seeks an order remanding her case for a
rehearing. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order
affirming her decision.
issues presented are whether the ALJ: (1) properly determined
that Belton did not have a condition that met or exceeded the
severity requirements of an impairment listed in the
pertinent regulations; (2) properly applied the treating
physician rule; and (3) properly evaluated Belton's
credibility with regard to her symptoms. For the following
reasons, Belton's motion for judgment on the pleadings is
denied, and the Commissioner's motion for an order
affirming her decision is granted.
examination of the record discloses the following: On July
19, 2012, Belton filed an application for DIB. for an alleged
disability that commenced on March 15, 2012. On October 24,
2012, her application was denied, and on April 17, 2013, her
request for reconsideration was denied.
16, 2014, Belton appeared with counsel for a hearing before
an ALJ. On June 3, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying
benefits. On September 24, 2015, the Appeals Council denied
Belton's request for review of that decision thereby
making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. This appeal followed.
who was born on March 18, 1961, has a high school diploma
plus one year of college. Her past relevant work was as an
administrative assistant, retail manager, newspaper layout
designer, cashier, take-out food clerk, personal care
assistant, and teaching assistant. According to Belton, she
left her most recent job, a teaching assistant position, in
2011 because “I had got an attack and I was sick, very
sick, for three days and I didn't call. I didn't show
up. So, about in the third day, I listened to my messages,
and they pretty much told me if I didn't show up or call,
that I was terminated. So, I never went to fight for my job,
because I didn't know if I was going to get sick again or
be out, and it was part time anyway. . . .” (Doc. #
9-3, at 85, p. 84).
early 2012, Belton's primary care physician, Dr. Babu
Kumar, referred her to a neurologist, Dr. Samuel Bridgers,
due to her history of migraine headaches. Dr. Bridgers'
initial consultation note, dated January 26, 2012, reflects
Belton's statements to him about her migraines:
She will probably experience a half a dozen headaches a year,
most of which can be controlled by taking Excedrin Migraine
at the onset. About twice a year, the Excedrin Migraine
won't work and the patient will go on to experience a
severe headache with nausea, vomiting, photophobia and
phonophobia. When headaches progress to this point, they
usually last a few days.
She denies . . . nausea and vomiting other than with
headaches, . . . joint problems, depression or anxiety.
9-8, at 44, p. 293).
a follow-up visit on July 6, 2012, Dr. Bridgers noted that
over the course of the previous six months “[s]he has
had 6 migraines. . . . They usually respond to a combination
of Maxalt 10 mg and a Compazine suppository. . . . I will see
her again in one year.” (Id. at 46, p. 295). A
report by Dr. Bridgers dated February 17, 2014, states the
The patient returns for reevaluation approximately 1 ½
years after I had last seen her. She still does average one
migraine [a] month, although in some months she may get none
and in some months she may get two in a row. Her headaches
generally respond to a combination of Maxalt MLT and a
(Id. at 77, p. 326).
Arthritis & Osteoporosis Center, P.C.
Dr. Kumar also referred Belton to the Arthritis &
Osteoporosis Center, P.C. (“AOC”) due to joint
pain. Belton first saw an AOC rheumatologist, Dr. Jennifer
Becker, on March 26, 2012. Her chief complaint was noted as
“Joint Pain.” (Id. at 47, p. 296). It
was further noted that the “[p]atient denies systemic
symptoms . . . .” (Id.). Belton was diagnosed
as having “Discoid Lupus, ” and it was noted that
“[s]he is without . . . manifestations of Systemic
Lupus Erythematosus.” (Id. at 48, p. 297). At
a follow-up visit on April 19, 2012, she was again diagnosed
as having “Discoid Lupus, ” and it was also noted
that there were indicators of “probable SLE [Systemic
Lupus Erythematosus].” (Id. at 51, p. 300).
20, 2012, Dr. Becker listed a diagnosis of “SLE”
as well as a diagnosis of “Discoid Lupus.”
(Id. at 54, p. 303). A notation in Dr. Becker's
report indicated that certain lab results were “fitting
for Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease, probable SLE.
I discussed SLE with patient.” (Id.). A report
from a visit on October 15, 2012 indicates that Beltons's
joints were “feeling good” and that she had
“[n]o new issues.” (Id. at 68, p. 317).
office visit report from Dr. Becker dated March 15, 2013 is
largely unremarkable. As is the case with other AOC reports,
this record indicates that the “[p]atient denies
systemic symptoms specifically denying fever, chest pain, SOB
[shortness of breath].” (Id. at 74, p. 323).
On July 12, 2013, Belton returned to AOC, where she was seen
by APRN [Advanced Practice Registered Nurse] Anita DeAngelo
and reported that “she has been well overall except for
arm stiffness. . . . Some days she is more fatigued than
others.” (Id. at 94, p. 343).
September 24, 2013, Belton was seen by AOC rheumatologist Dr.
Sonia Gordon-Dole for the first time. The report of that
visit indicates that during the period of her treatment by
Dr. Becker, Belton “had intermittent join pain, ”
and that “[h]er main concern is the scarring from her
skin.” (Id. at 89, p. 338). At an AOC office
visit on December 6, 2013, she was seen again by APRN
DeAngelo and “[d]eni[ed] joint symptoms, pain or
swelling” and “report[ed] no new skin or other
symptoms.” (Id. at 85, p. 334 and at 87, p.
March 20, 2014, Belton was seen for a second time by Dr.
Gordon-Dole. The chart note from that visit again refers to
“intermittent joint pain” and states that
“[h]er main concern is the scarring from her
skin.” (Id. at 78, p. 327). Under the heading
“Lifestyle” the note states, “Vigorous
activity level. Exercises daily.” (Id. at 81,
Gordon-Dale wrote a letter to plaintiff's counsel, dated
May 14, 2014, in response to a letter from counsel
“which indicated that you represent Sharyl Belton in
her claim for social security disability insurance
benefits.” (Id. at 137, p.386). Dr.
Gordon-Dale's letter included the following statements:
Mrs. Belton has Systemic Lupus erythematosus and features of
a mixed connective tissue disease. She has constitutional
symptoms, involvement of skin, hair, and joints and
laboratory evidence of lupus . . . . She has severe
depression which is most likely due to central nervous system
involvement and has been limited by disabling daily
refractory migraines and severe malaise and fatigue, despite
ongoing treatments. She has difficulty with activities of
daily living and cannot complete tasks necessary to maintain
She meets criteria for Listing 14.02 Systemic lupus
erythematosus. She was diagnosed with systemic lupus and
placed on systemic treatment 4/19/2012 and therefore it is
evident that she met criteria before and on March 31 2013.
(Id. at 137, p. 386).
Agency Consulting Physicians
addition to reports from treating providers, the record also
contains the determinations of two state agency consulting
physicians that Belton's “[a]llegations of total
disability due to impairments are not fully supported by the
objective evidence in [the] file.” (Doc. # 9-4, at 7,
p. 101 and at 19, p. 113). One of the consulting physicians
found that Belton was capable of performing past relevant
work (layout designer) with some limitations. The other
consultant determined that she was capable of performing work
at a light exertional level with some climbing limitations.
May 16, 2014 hearing before the ALJ, Belton testified that in
the year or two before she first saw Dr. Becker she was
“extremely depressed . . . [and] was sick all the
time.” (Doc. # 9-3, at 44, p. 43). With regard to that
same time period, she stated that she “could have
[migraines] a couple times a day. I could have them a couple
times a week.” (Id.). She testified further
that she knew these headaches were migraines “because
immediately I get ...