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Machnicz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 25, 2017



          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of Laura Lee Machnicz's application for disability insurance benefits. Ms. Machnicz argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in concluding that her impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, specifically Listing 11.13, “Muscular dystrophy with disorganization of motor function.” Although I find that the ALJ failed to specifically explain why Ms. Machnicz's impairment did not meet or medically equal Listing 11.13, I nevertheless conclude that the decision was supported by substantial evidence. I therefore AFFIRM.

         I. Background

         Ms. Machnicz filed an application for disability benefits on January 7, 2013. (Pl.'s Memo, ECF No. 19 at 1; Def.'s Memo, ECF No. 22-1 at 2.) On June 24, 2013, the Social Security Administration denied her initial request for disability benefits and thereafter denied her request for reconsideration. (Id.) Ms. Machnicz appeared with counsel for a hearing before ALJ Sharda Singh on December 19, 2014. (Id.) On March 13, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (Id.)

         The ALJ found that Ms. Machnicz was a 40-year-old woman at the time of the alleged disability onset date, with severe impairments of back injury, muscular dystrophy, and depression. (ALJ Decision, Tr. 15.) She determined that Ms. Machnicz did not have a listed impairment, noting that she had considered all physical listings, including Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint) and 1.04 (disorders of the spine), as well as a mental impairment listing, Listing 12.04 (affective disorders). (Id. at 15-17.) Next, the ALJ determined that Ms. Machnicz had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform ‘light work' as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except she can only stand and walk for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She must avoid hazards. She is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple, routing, and repetitive noncomplex tasks.

(Id. at 17-21.) Finally, the ALJ found that although Ms. Machnicz could not perform past relevant work, there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform based on her age, RFC, work experience, and education, and therefore she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 21-23.) Specific facts and portions of the ALJ's decision will be discussed below as necessary.

         On March 17, 2016, the appeals council denied Ms. Machnicz's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). (Pl.'s Memo at 1; Def.'s Memo at 2.) This appeal followed. Ms. Machnicz has filed a motion for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner, and the Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming the decision.

         II. Standard

         The Social Security Act establishes that benefits are payable to individuals who have a disability, “[an] inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment....” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1), (d)(1). The Commissioner delegates her authority to make fact findings and disability benefits decisions to ALJs, who must follow a five-step evaluation process.[1]

         “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 plaintiff's 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.

         III. Discussion

         Ms. Machnicz argues that the ALJ erred in determining that her condition did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, because she failed to consider Listing 11.13, “muscular dystrophy with disorganization of motor function.”[2] Ms. Machnicz does not dispute the ALJ's determinations at other steps of the process, or her factual findings.

         Ms. Machnicz is correct that the ALJ did not mention or discuss Listing 11.13 in her decision. While the ALJ stated that she had considered “all physical listings” and made a general finding that “no acceptable medical source has mentioned findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of any listed impairments, individually or in combination, ” she only explicitly walked through the criteria of Listings 1.02, 1.04, and 12.04. (ALJ Decision, Tr. 15-16.) The failure to mention Listing 11.13 does not require a remand, however, if other portions of the ALJ's decision show that substantial evidence supports the conclusion that ...

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