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Aguilar v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 31, 2017




         Plaintiff, Diana Aguilar, seeks judicial review of the denial of her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”).[1] Currently pending are plaintiff's motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) (doc. #15) and defendant's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. #16.) Pursuant to the court's order, counsel filed a joint stipulation of facts and medical chronology, which I incorporate by reference. (Doc. #15-1.) For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is DENIED and defendant's motion is GRANTED.[2]

         I. Legal Standard

         The standards for determining an individual's entitlement to DIB and 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. Discussion

         Plaintiff makes several arguments. She contends that the ALJ erred by (a) failing to find that plaintiff has a listed impairment; (b) committing factual errors in her evaluation of the evidence; (c) improperly applying the treating physician rule; (d) failing to properly assess plaintiff's credibility; and (e) failing to consider plaintiff's non-severe impairments in her RFC determination. I consider each argument in turn.

         A. Listed Impairment

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred at step three by failing to find that her bipolar disorder meets or medically equals Listing 12.04 (bipolar disorder), 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Listing 12.04 is met when the requirements in both paragraphs A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements of paragraph C are satisfied.[3] It is uncontested that plaintiff's mental impairments satisfy the paragraph A criteria, and she contends she also meets the paragraph B criteria. To satisfy paragraph B of § 12.04, the claimant's mental impairment

must result in at least two of the following: marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. A marked limitation means more than moderate but less than extreme. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration, means three episodes within 1 year, or an average of once every 4 months, each lasting for at least 2 weeks.

(R. 21.)

         Plaintiff argues that she satisfies the paragraph B criteria because she is markedly impaired in activities of daily living; social functioning; and concentration, persistence, and pace. Plaintiff directs the court to a medical source statement completed by Dr. Raj Bansal and co-signed by licensed clinical social worker Nellie Rivera. (R. 517-20.) Although these clinicians assessed that plaintiff has obvious problems using good judgment regarding safety and dangerous circumstances and handling frustration appropriately, they did not indicate any serious problems with activities of daily living. Similarly, the clinicians assessed only a slight problem getting along with others without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, but no problem in any other area of social interaction. (R. 519.) With regard to task performance, the clinicians assessed only one serious problem--performing work activity on a sustained basis. (R. 519.) They noted that plaintiff has obvious problems carrying out multi-step instructions; focusing long enough to finish assigned simple activities or tasks; and changing from one simple task to another. (R. 519.) She has no problem carrying out single-step instructions and only a slight problem performing basic work activities at a reasonable pace/finishing on time. (R. 519.)

         The ALJ correctly determined that plaintiff's bipolar disorder does not satisfy the paragraph B criteria because she does not have any marked limitations, nor has she experienced any episodes of decompensation for an extended period of time. (R. 22.) The ALJ explained that the record, including plaintiff's own statements, [4] supports a finding of only moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace, and mild limitations in activities of daily living and social functioning. (R. 21-22.) The ALJ's determination that plaintiff has not satisfied the paragraph B criteria of Listing 12.04 is supported by substantial evidence.

         B. Alleged Factual Errors

         Plaintiff next contends that the ALJ misconstrued the evidence and made several erroneous factual findings, namely: (1) that plaintiff independently cares for her two children; (2) that plaintiff stated she can perform her past work; and (3) that plaintiff has “continued to gain weight without any attempts to try to lose weight, such as diet restrictions and exercise.” (R. 24.) Plaintiff argues that these errors led the ALJ to conclude that plaintiff is able to function at a higher level than she actually can.

         Plaintiff maintains that her children spend a significant amount of time with their grandmother and that “they are involved with the Department of Children and Families.” (Pl. Br., Doc. #15-1, p. 9.) To the contrary, the record reflects that plaintiff's children live with her and that she cares for them on a daily basis by getting them ready for school, preparing food for them, and taking them to their sports practices. (R. 246-52.) The children temporarily lived with their grandmother when plaintiff was working at night. (R. 408.) The Department of Children and Families was called on one occasion in 2011 because her autistic son reportedly had bruises. (R. 542.) There is no implication in the record that plaintiff is incapable of caring for her children, and plaintiff testified that no one ever has complained about the way she takes care of her children. (R. 77.)

         Plaintiff next criticizes the ALJ's characterization of her testimony about her ability to work. Plaintiff maintains that she testified she could not work because of her “mental statuses.” (R. 65.) A review of the transcript, however, reveals that plaintiff testified that she could perform her past relevant work, subject to her temporary lifting restriction following bariatric surgery. (R. 27, 46-48.)

         Lastly, when the ALJ's discussion of plaintiff's weight gain is read in context, it is clear that she did not ...

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