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Cogdell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 28, 2017




         Plaintiff Tashia N. Cogdell brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security which denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §401 et seq. (“the Act”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1)(E) and §1382(a)(1). Plaintiff has moved to reverse and remand the case for a rehearing. The Commissioner has moved to affirm.

         For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion for Order Reversing the Commissioner's Decision [Doc. #25] is DENIED. Defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #31] is GRANTED.


         The procedural history of this case is not disputed. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI on March 26, 2010, alleging disability as of May 1, 2003.[2] [Certified Transcript of the Record, Compiled on May 2, 2015, Doc. #15 (hereinafter “Tr.”) 18, 181]. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. [Tr. 181].

         On October 25, 2011, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Deirdre Horton for an administrative hearing. [Tr. 36-68]. A second hearing was held before ALJ Horton on November 2, 2012, after remand from the Appeals Council. [Tr. 195-98; 69-114]. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Kathleen Regan, testified by telephone at the hearing. [Tr. 102-113]. On December 14, 2012, ALJ Horton found that plaintiff was not disabled, and denied her claim. [Tr. 15-33]. Plaintiff's January 17, 2013, request for review of the hearing decision was denied on July 22, 2014. [Tr. 1-7; 8-9]. The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         Plaintiff, represented by counsel, timely filed this action for review and moves to reverse the Commissioner's decision.


         The review of a social security disability determination involves two levels of inquiry. First, the Court must decide whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in making the determination. Second, the Court must decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence. Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it is more than a “mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The reviewing court's responsibility is to ensure that a claim has been fairly evaluated by the ALJ. Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983) (citation omitted).

         The Court does not reach the second stage of review - evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion - if the Court determines that the ALJ failed to apply the law correctly. See Norman v. Astrue, 912 F.Supp.2d 33, 70 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (“The Court first reviews the Commissioner's decision for compliance with the correct legal standards; only then does it determine whether the Commissioner's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.”). “Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.” Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987).

         “[T]he crucial factors in any determination must be set forth with sufficient specificity to enable [a reviewing court] to decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence.” Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984) (alteration added) (citation omitted). The ALJ is free to accept or reject the testimony of any witness, but a “finding that the witness is not credible must nevertheless be set forth with sufficient specificity to permit intelligible plenary review of the record.” Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 260-61 (2d Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). “Moreover, when a finding is potentially dispositive on the issue of disability, there must be enough discussion to enable a reviewing court to determine whether substantial evidence exists to support that finding.” Johnston v. Colvin, Civil Action No. 3:13-CV-00073(JCH), 2014 WL 1304715, at *6 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (internal citations omitted).

         It is important to note that, in reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court's role is not to start from scratch. “In reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited to determining whether the SSA's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a correct legal standard.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “[W]hether there is substantial evidence supporting the appellant's view is not the question here; rather, we must decide whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.” Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 F.App'x 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013)(citations omitted).


         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1). To qualify for supplemental security income, an individual must be eligible on the basis of income and resources. 42 U.S.C. §1381a.

         To be considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to benefits, plaintiff must demonstrate that she is unable to work after a date specified “by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A). Such impairment or impairments must be “of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c)(alterations added) (requiring that the impairment “significantly limit[] ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” to be considered “severe”); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B), 20 C.F.R. §416.920(c).

         There is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4). In the Second Circuit, the test is described as follows:

First, the Secretary considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the Secretary next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Secretary will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Secretary presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a “listed” impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam). If and only if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the Commissioner engages in the fourth and fifth steps:

Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the Secretary then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform. Under the cases previously discussed, the claimant bears the burden of proof as to the first four steps, while the Secretary must prove the final one.


         “Through the fourth step, the claimant carries the burdens of production and persuasion, but if the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, there is a limited shift in the burden of proof and the Commissioner is obligated to demonstrate that jobs exist in the national or local economies that the claimant can perform given his residual functional capacity.” Gonzalez ex rel. Guzman v. Dep't of Health and Human Serv., 360 F.App'x 240, 243 (2d Cir. 2010) (citing 68 Fed. Reg. 51155 (Aug. 26, 2003)); Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam)). “Residual functional capacity” is what a person is still capable of doing despite limitations resulting from his physical and mental impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1545(a), 416.945(a)(1).

         “In assessing disability, factors to be considered are (1) the objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses or medical opinions based on such facts; (3) subjective evidence of pain or disability testified to by the claimant or others; and (4) the claimant's educational background, age, and work experience.” Bastien v. Califano, 572 F.2d 908, 912 (2d Cir. 1978) (citation omitted). “[E]ligibility for benefits is to be determined in light of the fact that the Social Security Act is a remedial statute to be broadly construed and liberally applied.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).


         Following the above-described five step evaluation process, ALJ Horton concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. [Tr. 18-28]. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity between October 2009 through June 2010. [Tr. 21]. The ALJ found that there has been a continuous twelve month period(s) during which plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity. Id. Her findings address the period(s) plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity. Id.

         At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe medical impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and bipolar disorder. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d)), specifically listings 1.04 (musculoskeletal for disorders of the spine) and 12.04 (depressive disorder). Id. The ALJ also conducted a psychiatric review technique and found that plaintiff had mild limitations in her activities of daily living, and moderate limitations in social functioning, concentration, persistence and pace, and no episodes of extended duration decompensation. [Tr. 21-22].

         Before moving on to step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform

light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), and can sit, stand, and walk for 6 hours in an 8 hour day. She can lift and carry 25 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She is able to understand, remember, and carry out instructions; she would do better at working in her own or in small groups; she should avoid working with the public. She can maintain attention and focus to complete simple tasks; however, she would occasionally have difficulties maintaining focus for complex tasks.

[Tr. 22].

         At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a nurse's aide. [Tr. 26]. At step five, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. [Tr. 26-28].

         V. DISCUSSION

         On appeal, plaintiff asserts the following arguments in favor of remand.

1. The ALJ's step three finding was error;
2. The ALJ's application of the treating physician's rule was error;
3. The ALJ's credibility assessment was not supported by substantial evidence;
4. The ALJ did not properly evaluate the duration, persistence, location and severity of ...

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