United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS
SARAH A. L. MERRIAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Cecelia Cardenas (“plaintiff”), brings this
appeal under §205(g) of the Social Security Act (the
“Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §405(g),
seeking review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (the
“Commissioner” or “defendant”)
denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) under the Act. Plaintiff has moved to
reverse the decision of the Commissioner, or in the
alternative, for remand to the Social Security Administration
for a new hearing. [Doc. #26].
reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion for Order
Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc.
#26] is DENIED, and defendant's
Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the
Commissioner [Doc. #28] is
filed an application for DIB on March 28, 2013, alleging
disability beginning January 1, 2008. See Certified
Transcript of the Administrative Record, compiled on
September 12, 2016, (hereinafter “Tr.”) 168-174.
At the administrative hearing, plaintiff amended her alleged
disability onset date to March 28, 2012. See Tr. 56.
Plaintiff's application was denied initially on June 5,
2013, see Tr. 128-31, and upon reconsideration on
July 3, 2013. See Tr. 139-47.
30, 2014, plaintiff, represented by Attorney Kerin Woods,
appeared and testified through an interpreter at a hearing
before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Deirdre
Horton. See Tr. 52-81. On September 17, 2014, the ALJ issued
an unfavorable decision. See Tr. 15-31. On July 1, 2016, the
Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review,
thereby making the ALJ's September 17, 2014, decision the
final decision of the Commissioner. See Tr. 1-9. The
case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
timely filed this action for review and now moves to reverse
the Commissioner's decision, or in the alternative, to
remand for a new hearing. [Doc. #26]. On appeal, plaintiff
1. The ALJ improperly assessed the medical evidence of
2. The ALJ erred at step two of the sequential evaluation;
3. The ALJ erred in assessing plaintiff's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”), and the ALJ's
RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence;
4. The ALJ erred in relying exclusively on the
Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the “Grids”)
without obtaining vocational expert testimony; and
5. The ALJ's credibility determination is not supported
by substantial evidence.
See Doc. #26-1 at 1-2.
forth below, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err as
contended by plaintiff, and that the ALJ's determination
is supported by substantial evidence.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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. See 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. See Grey v.
Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983).
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.” (citing Tejada
v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999))).
“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).
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) (alterations added) (citing Treadwell
v. Schweiker, 698 F.2d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1983)). 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) (citing Carroll v. Sec. Health
and Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 643 (2d Cir. 1983)).
“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, No. 3:13CV00073(JCH), 2014 WL 1304715, at *6
(D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (citing Peoples v. Shalala,
No. 92CV4113, 1994 WL 621922, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 4,
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) (quoting
Lamay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 507
(2d Cir. 2009)). “[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).
SSA LEGAL STANDARD
the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a
disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42
considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to
benefits, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he or 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). Such
impairment or impairments must be “of such severity
that he 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.” 42 U.S.C.
§423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(c)
(requiring that the impairment “significantly limit
... physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities” to be considered “severe”).
is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a
person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R.
§§404.1520. 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
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.
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 [her] 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)). The RFC is what a person is still
capable of doing despite limitations resulting from his
physical and mental impairments. See 20 C.F.R.
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).
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. (quoting Haberman v. Finch, 418 F.2d
664, 667 (2d Cir. 1969)).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
the above-described five-step evaluation process, the ALJ
concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.
See Tr. 31. At step one, the ALJ found that
plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
during the period from the amended alleged onset date of
March 28, 2012, through September 30, 2012, the date of last
insured. See Tr. 23. At step two, the ALJ found that
plaintiff had the severe impairments of “degenerative
disc disease, mild lumbar and cervical; obesity; and
fibromyalgia.” Tr. 23. The ALJ determined that
plaintiff's thyroid disorder, carpal tunnel syndrome,
intermittent numbness in her hands, and affective disorder
were non-severe impairments. See Id. at 24.
three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either
alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any
of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P,
App. 1. See Tr. 25-26. The ALJ specifically
considered Listings 1.00 (musculoskeletal system); 1.04
(disorders of the spine); 1.02 (major dysfunction of a
joint), 14.09 (inflammatory arthritis); and 12.00 (adult
mental disorders). See Tr. 25-26. Before moving on
to step four, ...