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Mangual v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 31, 2017

ENEIDA MANGUAL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          RULING ON PENDING MOTIONS

          Donna F. Martinez United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Eneida Mangual, seeks judicial review of the denial of her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). Currently pending are plaintiff's motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) (doc. #13) and defendant's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. #16.) On September 30, 2016, pursuant to the court's order, counsel filed a joint stipulation of facts and medical chronology, which I incorporate by reference. (Doc. #33.) For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is GRANTED and defendant's motion is DENIED.[1]

         I. Legal Standard

         The standards for determining an individual's entitlement to SSI, the Commissioner's five-step framework for evaluating claims, and the district court's review of the final decision of the Commissioner are well-settled. I am following those standards, but do not repeat them here.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff applied for SSI on October 21, 2010. (R. 133-35.) Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 74, 80-82.) On November 8, 2011, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 84-92.) The Social Security Administration Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (“ODAR”) scheduled a hearing for June 18, 2012. (R. 93-100.) Plaintiff appeared without representation and requested a continuance. ODAR senior attorney Sally Rogers conducted a pre-hearing conference to (1) advise plaintiff of her right to representation; (2) confirm that the medical evidence was up to date; and (3) schedule a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 34-39.) Plaintiff's hearing before an ALJ was scheduled for September 20, 2012.

         Plaintiff went to the Greater Hartford Legal Aid (“GHLA”) office on September 7, 2012. (R. 132.) Attorney Veronica Halpine reviewed plaintiff's file and told her that she would represent plaintiff “if she was able to get a continuance” of the September 20 hearing. (R. 132.) Attorney Halpine filed an “Appointment of Representative” form on September 17, 2012. (R. 131.) That same day, she requested a postponement of the hearing in order to “complete the record and advocate on [plaintiff's] behalf.” (R. 132.) The ALJ denied the request for postponement on September 18, 2012. (R. 228.) Attorney Halpine withdrew. (R. 228.)

         Plaintiff appeared unrepresented at the September 20 hearing. (R. 40-55.) The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision dated October 15, 2012. (R. 30.) Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on March 20, 2014. (R. 1-4.) She timely appealed to this court.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record. I agree.

         “Where, as here, the claimant [was] unrepresented by counsel, the ALJ is under a heightened duty to scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all the relevant facts . . . . A reviewing court must determine whether the ALJ adequately protect[ed] the rights of [a] pro se litigant by ensuring that all of the relevant facts [are] sufficiently developed and considered.” Echevarria v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 685 F.2d 751, 755 (2d Cir. 1982) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Plaintiff's primary language is Spanish and her ability to communicate effectively in English is limited. (R. 184.) She also has a limited education, having attended school only through 9th grade in Puerto Rico. (R. 184.) Plaintiff testified through an interpreter at both the pre-hearing conference and the hearing before the ALJ. The record is replete with instances where plaintiff's tenuous command of English affected her ability to understand the proceedings. At the pre-hearing conference, Attorney Rogers asked plaintiff about her medical records as follows:

SR. ATTY: I'd like to go over your medical records.
You're treated at St. Francis Clinic. Who do you see there?
CLMT: Yes.
SR. ATTY: Are you treated anywhere else?
CLMT: No, only there.
SR. ATTY: Have you had any hospitalizations or emergency room visits in the past year?
CLMT: No, I went on the 15th.
SR. ATTY: To St. Francis?
CLMT: Yes.
SR. ATTY: But you haven't been to the emergency room?
CLMT: No, I went to the ER.
SR. ATTY: Which hospital did you go to?
CLMT: St. Francis.
SR. ATTY: Before that, when were you seen ...

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