United States District Court, D. Connecticut
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
Vanessa L. Bryant, United States District Judge
Correa (“Correa”) brings this action under §
205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
to challenge the final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security (“Commissioner”) denying Correa's
application for supplemental security income and social
security disability benefits. Correa moves to reverse or
remand the Commissioner's decision, arguing the ALJ erred
in finding her severe impairments of bipolar disorder and
anxiety did not match or medically equal a listing under 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The Commissioner
moves for Judgment on the Pleadings, arguing the ALJ properly
evaluated Correa's claim at Step Three. For the following
reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.
Court has reviewed the evidence and accepts the facts from
the parties' joint stipulation of undisputed facts,
hereby incorporating them into this opinion. [Dkt. 18-1]. In
October 2011, Correa visited Staywell Health Center, where
she received primary care, and she reported feelings of
anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance during both
visits. Id. ¶ 1. Her primary care physician,
Dr. Luis Leon, referred her to St. Mary's Hospital
Behavioral Health (“St. Mary's”) where she
began outpatient mental health treatment on February 23,
2012. Id. ¶ 2; see Tr. 477. Correa
received her outpatient treatment primarily from Elizabeth
Korn, APRN, see generally [Dkt. 18-1], who diagnosed
her with bipolar disorder with most recent episode mixed,
severe with psychotic features, anxiety disorder NOS,
post-traumatic stress disorder, and cocaine abuse in
remission, id. ¶ 12. In March, Correa
started her treatment on a weekly basis, but thereafter
visited St. Mary's on a biweekly basis in April and May,
and on a monthly basis during the fall of 2012. See
Id. ¶¶ 5-10, 12-17, 18-19, 21-25. Nurse Korn
also diagnosed Correa with cannabis abuse in September 2012.
Id. ¶ 19. Correa visited St. Mary's monthly
from January through July of 2013, but after she only visited
St. Mary's once, in October, for the rest of that year.
See Id. ¶¶ 31-40. Correa visited St.
Mary's on a monthly basis in 2014. See Id.
Korn's observations are relatively consistent throughout
the duration of Correa's treatment. Correa reported
feelings of anxiety and depression, and she periodically
reported difficulty with sleep and appetite as well as
auditory and visual hallucinations. See, e.g.,
¶¶ 6, 13, 19, 32, 37, 41, 47, 49. Nurse Korn nearly
uniformly documented Correa's insight, judgment, memory,
and concentration as “fair, ” although in
September 2012 Nurse Korn indicated Correa's insight and
judgment were “poor.” See, e.g., Id.
¶ 10, 19, 37, 41. Correa was usually described has
having normal speech and grooming, although at times she did
not, and she typically appeared alert and oriented. See,
e.g., Id. ¶ 7, 8, 16, 18, 23, 34, 41. But see
Id. ¶ 13. When Correa failed to take her
medications, her symptoms worsened. See, e.g., Id.
¶¶ 13-14. Over the course of her treatment, her
Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score
varied from as low as 34 in January 2013 to as high as 48 in
July 2013, February 2014, and August 2014. See Id.
¶ 31, 38, 46, 52.
addition to the treatment Correa received at Staywell and St.
Mary's, several examiners evaluated Correa. In January
2013, Dr. Diana Badillo Martinez conducted a consultative
examination of Correa on behalf of the Connecticut Disability
Determination Services. Id. ¶¶ 27-30. Dr.
Badillo Martinez observed her “attention span”
and “ability to perform mental operations” were
“below the norm;” that she “forgets
directions, derails, and does not focus well;” and that
her insight and introspective abilities were low and her
judgment was poor. Id. Correa “cannot remember
one sentence after delay of 15 even when a cue.”
Id. Notably, Dr. Badillo Martinez opined that her
anxiety, easy agitation and disorganization would make it
difficult to find and maintain employment. Id.
¶ 30. Dr. Mario Perez also completed a form for the
State of Connecticut Department of Social Services, opining
that Correa could not be expected to work for 12 months or
longer and assigning a GAF score of 44. Id. ¶
42. Other consultative examiners assessed Correa's
medical records on behalf of the Social Security
Administration, and Dr. Gitlow specifically testified at
Correa's administrative hearing. See Tr. 21.
issued its determination on March 27, 2015, the findings of
which are subject to review by this Court. Tr. 23. The ALJ
determined Correa has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged onset Dated: March 9, 2011. Tr.
13. Correa suffers from the following severe impairments:
bipolar disorder, anxiety, and cannabis use. Id. Her
non-severe impairments include hypertension, carpal tunnel
syndrome, and peripheral neuropathy. Tr. 14.
then determined Correa does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the
severity of a listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. The specific listings
identified for comparison were § 12.04 (affective
disorders), § 12.06 (anxiety related disorders), and
§ 12.09 (substance addiction disorders). The ALJ did not
apply Correa's medical history to each listing in detail,
but rather concluded that with respect to paragraph B of
sections 12.04 and 12.06, Correa possessed “mild
restriction of activities of daily living; moderate
difficulties in maintaining social functioning; moderate
difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or
pace; and no episodes of decompensation.” Id.
To satisfy this element of the listing standards, Correa
would have had to demonstrate two of the following:
“marked restriction” of the first three
categories, and repeated episodes of decompensation of
extended duration. Id. This she did not do.
discussed in depth Correa's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). See Tr. 15-22. Specifically,
the ALJ determined Correa could “perform a full range
of work at all exertional levels” but with various
nonexertional limitations. Id. He addressed
Correa's testimony and concluded she was “not
entirely credible for the reasons explained in this
decision.” Tr. 16. To support his reasoning, the ALJ
set forth an in-depth chronology of Correa's medical
history from October 2011 until August 2014. See Tr.
16-20. The ALJ also stated that the treatment history does
not support her complaints, particularly because she was not
hospitalized and her condition worsened when she was not
taking medication. Tr. 20. Importantly, the ALJ noted that
Correa could successfully complete many activities of daily
living such as living alone in a house, cooking for herself
and her dog, washing dishes, completing housework, watching
television, taking the bus, getting dressed, collecting cans,
cleaning the apartment, ironing, shopping, and handling
made several determinations regarding the physicians involved
in this case. He assigned “little probative
weight” to Dr. Badillo Martinez because she only
interviewed Correa on one occasion and did not provide a
description of discrete functional limitations regarding
Correa's mental impairments. Tr. 20. The ALJ similarly
did not give Dr. Perez “substantial probative weight,
” ruling Dr. Perez's conclusions that Correa
possessed “marked limitations in remembering locations
and work-like procedures” did not match with treating
physicians. Tr. 20-21. However, the ALJ afforded
“significant probative weight” to the State
agency psychological consultant and Dr. Gitlow because the
conclusions were consistent with the medical history. Tr. 21.
the ALJ concluded that Correa could perform past relevant
work as a packer and cleaner, which were classified by the
vocational expert as a “light exertional level, medium
as performed and unskilled, and light and unskilled.”
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.” Lamay v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 507 (2d Cir.
2009) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). “Substantial
evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.
(internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “[A
district court] must consider the whole record, examining the
evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the
substantiality of the evidence must also include that which
detracts from its weight.” Petrie v. Astrue,
412 F. App'x 401, 403-04 (2d Cir. 2011) (quoting
Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255,
258 (2d Cir. 1988)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
“Even if the Commissioner's decision is supported
by substantial evidence, legal error alone can be enough to
overturn the ALJ's decision.” Ellington v.
Astrue, 641 F.Supp.2d 322, 328 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (citing
Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987)).
“disabled” under the Social Security Act, a
claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in
any substantial gainful activity 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).
has promulgated the following five-step procedure to evaluate
1. First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant
is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity