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Kapustynski v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 29, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Jeffrey Alker Meyer, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff David Kapustynski asserts disability on the basis of, among other ailments, joint pain, back pain, cognitive deficits, and heart disease since May 18, 2013. He brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the defendant Commissioner of Social Security, who denied plaintiff's claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. For the reasons set forth below, I will deny plaintiff's motion to reverse or remand the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #14).


         Plaintiff was 56 years old when he applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. He worked for around 15 years as an auto mechanic in Florida, but eventually left for Connecticut to be cared for by his family after a severe gastrointestinal bleed, which has since resolved. Plaintiff's date last insured is December 31, 2017.

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on June 7, 2013, and for supplemental security income on June 19, 2013, each with an onset date of May 18, 2013. His applications were denied initially on August 20, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 10, 2013. Doc. #11-3 at 12. The ALJ held a hearing on February 13, 2015, at which plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert testified.

         On May 14, 2015, the ALJ ruled that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The ALJ's analysis followed the familiar five-step evaluation for considering a claim of disability. See, e.g., McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014). At step one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant time period.

         At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the following “severe impairments” during the relevant time period: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and alcohol abuse in remission. Doc. #11-3 at 15. Plaintiff had a number of non-severe, medically determinable impairments, including diverticulitis, kidney stone, anemia, leukocytosis (high white blood cell count), hyperlipidemia, dyspnea (shortness of breath), althralgias (joint pain), osteoarthritis of the knees, carpal tunnel syndrome, labrynitis (ear disorder causing dizziness), hypertension, and vestipular disorder (ear disorder causing balance disruption). Doc. #11-3 at 15. Several claimed impairments were not medically determinable, including alleged chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and congestive heart failure, for lack of diagnoses in the record and plaintiff's failure to supplement the record within the time frame set forth by the ALJ. Doc. #11-3 at 16.

         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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Doc. #11-3 at 17. The ALJ considered listings 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), and 12.09 (substance addiction disorders), and specifically concluded with respect to 12.04 and 12.06 that the “paragraph B” and “paragraph C” criteria had not been met. Doc. #11-3 at 17-19.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as an auto mechanic, Doc. #11-3 at 24, which a vocational expert had testified was precluded because of how fumes in the workplace would affect plaintiff's COPD. The ALJ found plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) to be the capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels yet with certain non-exertional limitations: that plaintiff can frequently balance but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; that plaintiff can work in a setting free of concentrated exposure to hazardous conditions, such as unprotected heights and exposure to fumes such as odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation; and that plaintiff can perform simple, routine tasks involving no more than simple, short instructions and simple work-related decisions in a setting with few workplace changes. Doc. #11-3 at 19.

         In calculating plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that plaintiff's credibility should be “diminished” because plaintiff allegedly exaggerated some of his symptoms, engaged in arguably robust daily activities, and had sought unemployment benefits, creating a conflict about whether he was physically able to work. Doc. #11-3 at 23-24. The ALJ also found “not entirely credible” plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms. Doc. #11-3 at 20.

         As to plaintiff's physical impairments, the ALJ noted that none of plaintiff's treating physicians had recommended exertional restrictions and that plaintiff's pain had been ameliorated by medication. Even without the medication (which plaintiff testified he had to stop taking because he had recently been diagnosed with congestive heart failure), the ALJ pointed to plaintiff's testimony that he was able to “deal with” his pain. And although the ALJ imposed several physical limitations (such as restrictions on balancing, climbing, being at heights, and exposure to fumes), he did not discuss them in any detail in formulating the RFC, other than to discuss plaintiff's credibility. The ALJ also adjusted the RFC to account for plaintiff's non-exertional impairment relating to plaintiff's “cognitive deficits”: only simple tasks because of plaintiff's diminished memory.

         At step five, the ALJ consulted the vocational grids, but then determined that plaintiff's non-exertional impairments required him to consult the testimony of the vocational expert. Doc. #11-3 at 25. The ALJ consulted the vocational expert to determine whether plaintiff's non-exertional impairments significantly eroded the occupational base of unskilled work at all exertional levels and, based on that testimony, concluded that it did not. Doc. #11-3 at 26. The vocational expert gave three jobs that plaintiff would be able to perform in the national economy: each of those jobs were unskilled and of light physical exertion: mail clerk, bench assembler, and electronics assembler. Doc. #11-3 at 26. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled.

         Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision on May 29, 2015, and review was denied on December 23, 2015. Plaintiff then filed this federal action asking the Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision or remand the case for rehearing. Doc. #14. In response, the Commissioner ...

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