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Jazina v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 13, 2017

JAMES JAZINA, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS TO REMAND AND AFFIRM DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff James Jazina, Jr. asserts that he is disabled and unable to work, due primarily to chronic neck and back pain. He has 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 supplemental security income. For the reasons explained below, I will grant plaintiff's motion to remand the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #15), and deny defendant's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #18).

         Background

          The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #13-1 through Doc. #13-11. Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on March 24, 2014, alleging disability beginning August 29, 2013. Plaintiff was 52 years old at the time of his application. He previously worked as a computer technician and mechanic but has not worked since being laid off in 2008. Plaintiff filed a prior application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in July 2011, alleging disability since January 2009, but was found not disabled by an administrative law judge in 2013. Doc. #13-4 at 5-20.

         Plaintiff's current claim for supplemental security income was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Louis Bonsangue on November 4, 2015. Plaintiff was represented before the ALJ by both an attorney and a non-attorney representative. A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. On March 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision holding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Doc. #13-3 at 24-33. After the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff filed this federal action.

         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 Fed.Appx. 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, an ALJ can find a claimant to be disabled or not disabled at a particular step and can make a decision without proceeding to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proving the 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).

         The ALJ here concluded 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 March 24, 2014. Doc. #13-3 at 26. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from one severe impairment: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines. Ibid. The ALJ determined a number of plaintiff's other conditions to be non-severe impairments, including plaintiff's left eye cataract, history of traumatic brain injury, right shoulder pain, and right hearing loss. Id. at 27.

         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. The ALJ considered listing 1.04 (spine disorders) in particular and concluded that plaintiff's impairment did not satisfy the criteria of this listing. Ibid.

         At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b), ” but with the following additional limitations: plaintiff “can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can occasionally finger bilaterally, and he can occasionally reach bilaterally.” Id. at 28. In formulating this residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ gave “significant weight” to the assessments of two state agency medical consultants, while giving only “partial weight” to the opinions of plaintiff's treating physiatrist and treating primary care physician. Id. at 30-31.

         The ALJ also found plaintiff's testimony about his symptoms to be only partially credible. Specifically, the ALJ found that while plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, ” his “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the evidence . . . .” Id. at 28. Also at step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff could not perform any of his past relevant work. Id. at 31.

         At step five, after considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that jobs that plaintiff can perform exist in significant numbers in the national economy. This finding relied on the testimony of vocational expert Renee Jubrey, who testified at the administrative hearing that an individual with plaintiff's RFC and limitations (as determined by the ALJ) could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as school bus monitor, counter ...


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