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Caciopoli v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 1, 2017



          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Daniel Caciopoli asserts that he has been disabled and unable to work since November 1, 2006, due to a number of conditions, including chronic neck, back, and knee pain; migraines; and depression. He brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of a final decision of defendant Commissioner of Social Security, who denied plaintiff's claim for disability benefits and supplemental security income. For the reasons explained below, I will grant plaintiff's motion to remand the Commissioner's decision (Doc. #15), and deny defendant's motion to affirm the Commissioner's decision (Doc. #21).


         The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #11-1 through Doc. #11-21. Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits and supplemental security income on May 16, 2011, alleging disability beginning November 1, 2006. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then appeared and testified at a hearing before ALJ Ronald Thomas on October 3, 2013. The ALJ found plaintiff not disabled in a decision dated January 28, 2014. Doc. #11-4 at 81-99. The Appeals Council remanded plaintiff's claim back to the ALJ for a new hearing and decision. Id. at 107-09. The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to correct a number of deficiencies on remand, including to give further consideration to the treating and non-treating source opinions, as well as to give further consideration to plaintiff's RFC “and provide [a] rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of assessed limitations.” Id. at 109.

         On April 23, 2015, the same ALJ held a second hearing, at which plaintiff again testified. The ALJ issued a second decision on July 17, 2015, holding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Doc. #11-3 at 93-118. After the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's second decision, plaintiff filed this federal action.


         The Court may “set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the decision is based on legal error.” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla” and “means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lesterhuis v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 83, 87 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam). Absent a legal error, this Court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and even if this Court might have ruled differently had it considered the matter in the first instance. See Eastman v. Barnhart, 241 F.Supp.2d 160, 168 (D. Conn. 2003).

         To qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that he is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, ” and “the impairment must be ‘of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.'” Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d 42, 45 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 423(d)(2)(A)). “[W]ork exists in the national economy when it exists in significant numbers either in the region where [a claimant] live[s] or in several other regions of the country, ” and “when there is a significant number of jobs (in one or more occupations) having requirements which [a claimant] [is] able to meet with [his] physical or mental abilities and vocational qualifications.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.966(a)-(b); see also Kennedy v. Astrue, 343 F. App'x 719, 722 (2d Cir. 2009).

         To evaluate a claimant's disability, and to determine whether he qualifies for benefits, the agency engages in the following five-step process:

First, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Where the claimant is not, the Commissioner next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” that 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 that is listed [in the so-called “Listings”] ¶ 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. If the claimant has a listed impairment, the Commissioner will consider the claimant disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Commissioner presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a listed impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. 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 burden then shifts to the Commissioner to determine whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122-23 (2d Cir. 2012) (alteration in original) (citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). In applying this framework, if a claimant can be found disabled or not disabled at a particular step, a decision will be made without proceeding to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proving his case at steps one through four; at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that there is other work that the claimant can perform. See McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         ALJ's Decision

         In his decision of July 17, 2015, the ALJ held that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 1, 2006. Doc. #11-3 at 96. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease in the bilateral knees, headaches, affective disorders, and polysubstance dependence disorder. Ibid.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Ibid. In particular, the ALJ considered listings 1.02, 1.04, 11.03, 12.04, and 12.09, and concluded ...

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