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Santos v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 13, 2017

JOANNA D. SANTOS
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS [1]

          HOLLY B. FITZSIMMONS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          December 13, 2017 Plaintiff Joanna Santos brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security which denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI) under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §401 et seq. (“the Act”). Plaintiff has moved to reverse the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner has moved to affirm.

         For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #21] is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #24] is DENIED.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         The procedural history of this case is not disputed. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI on August 23. 2012, alleging disability as of May 2, 2010.[2] [Certified Transcript of the Record, Compiled on January 13, 2017, Doc. #14 (hereinafter “Tr.”) 234, 455-58, 459-67]. Plaintiff alleged disability based on pulmonary embolism, heart condition, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), headaches, temporomandibular joint (“TMJ”) disorder, depression, right leg weakness, and diabetes. [Tr. 489]. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. [Tr. 234, 360-63, 365-73].

         On December 30, 2014, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ronald J. Thomas for an administrative hearing.[3] [Tr. 259-98]. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Joseph Goodman, testified by telephone at the hearing. [Tr. 290-96]. On April 20, 2015, ALJ Thomas found that plaintiff was not disabled, and denied her claims. [Tr. 231-58]. Plaintiff's June 22, 2015, request for review of the hearing decision was denied on September 28, 2016. [Tr. 1-4]. The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         Plaintiff, represented by counsel, timely filed this action for review and moves to reverse the Commissioner's decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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. 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. Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983) (citation omitted).

         The 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.”). “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).

         “[T]he 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) (alteration added) (citation omitted). 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) (citation omitted). “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, Civil Action No. 3:13-CV- 00073(JCH), 2014 WL 1304715, at *6 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (internal citations omitted).

         It is 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) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “[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 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013)(citations omitted) (emphasis in original).

         III. SSA LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1). To qualify for supplemental security income, an individual must be eligible on the basis of income and resources. 42 U.S.C. §1381a.

         To be considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to benefits, plaintiff must demonstrate that 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); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A).

         Such impairment or impairments must be “of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c)(alterations added) (requiring that the impairment “significantly limit[] ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” to be considered “severe”); 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B), 20 C.F.R. §416.920(c).

         There is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4). 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 [s]he is not, the Secretary next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which significantly limits h[er] 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 h[er] 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 fifth steps:

Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, [s]he has the residual functional capacity to perform h[er] past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform h[er] past work, the Secretary then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform. Under the cases previously discussed, the claimant ...

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