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Prince v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 19, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge


         Plaintiff Deborah Lee Prince (“Prince”) brings this appeal under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code from the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), which denied her application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income. See Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. No. 1). Prince seeks either reversal or remand of the Decision rendered by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Richard A. DiBiccaro, which affirmed the Commissioner's denial. See Motion for Order to Reverse Final Decision of Commissioner (“Mot. to Reverse”) (Doc. No. 26). The Commissioner cross-moves for an order affirming that Decision. See Motion for Order Affirming the Commissioner's Decision (“Mot. to Affirm”) (Doc. No. 34).

         For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Order to Reverse Final Decision of Commissioner is GRANTED. The Motion for Order Affirming the Commissioner's Decision is DENIED.


         Prince applied for disability and supplemental security income benefits on February 15, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of September 26, 2008. See Stipulation of Facts (“Stip. of Facts”) (Doc. No. 26) at 1. The Commissioner denied Prince's application initially on May 21, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July 21, 2013. See Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Order to Reverse (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 26) at 2. Prince requested a hearing with an ALJ, which was held before ALJ DiBiccaro on July 9, 2014. See Stip. of Facts ¶ 1. A supplemental hearing was later held on November 14, 2014. See id.

         On January 30, 2015, ALJ DiBiccaro issued an unfavorable decision for Prince, affirming the Commissioner's denial and finding that Prince was not disabled. See Id. Specifically, ALJ DiBiccaro found that Prince's impairments did not meet or equal any listing, see id. at 2, and that, with her level of residual functional capacity (“RFC”), there were jobs in the national economy that she could perform, see id. Prince requested review by the Appeals Court, which denied the request on June 8, 2016. See id. at 1-2. Following that denial, ALJ DiBiccaro's January 30, 2015 Decision became a final decision reviewable by this court. See id. Prince then filed this appeal on August 29, 2016. See Compl.

         III. FACTS

         The court adopts the facts as stated in the Plaintiff's Stipulation of Facts, to which the Commissioner stipulated. See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Affirm (“Def.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 34-1) at 2. Only those facts relevant to the issues raised in the Motions before the court are set forth below.

         At the time of the July 9, 2014 administrative hearing, Prince was 51-years-old and was living in a camper on private property. See Stip. of Facts ¶ 5; Certified Transcript of Record (“R.”) at 381. Prince last worked as a certified nurse's assistant (“CNA”) at Gaylord Hospital, but was no longer able to work after September 26, 2006, when she was injured while trying to assist a patient. See id. at 7; R. at 582. The onset date of Prince's alleged disability occurred two years later, on September 26, 2008. See R. at 311.

         Prince's physicians have diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome, bilateral ulnar nerve dysfunction, cervical degenerative disc disease, cervicogenic migraines, and neuropathy. See Stip. of Facts ¶ 7-22. Prince's medical issues appear to have begun in 1989, when she tripped over a bicycle and her arm went through a glass window. See id. at 7; R. at 384. After the accident, she underwent reconstruction of her hand, forearm, and eight flexor tendons to repair damage to her ulnar nerve, ulnar artery, and forearm. See Stip. of Facts ¶ 7. Before 2009, Prince was treated by Dr. Nasir Ramin, Dr. Babu Kumar, and Dr. Mustapha Kemal. See id. at 7-13. Prince also attended physical therapy in 2008 for chronic back pain, hand numbness, and carpal tunnel syndrome. See id. at 8-10. Prince's medical record is interrupted by a gap from February 2009 until October 2012, when she did not receive any treatment for her impairments. See id. at 13. After 2012, Prince established a primary care relationship with Dr. Muneeb Samma. See id. at 13-22.


         Under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code, it is not a function of the district court to review de novo the ALJ's decision as to whether the claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Instead, the court may only set aside an ALJ's determination as to social security disability if the decision “is based upon legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). Substantial evidence requires “more than a mere scintilla, ” but is a “very deferential standard of review.” Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 447-48 (2d Cir. 2012). It requires “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 448. If the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, those findings are conclusive, and the court will not substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2016); see also Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998).

         V. DISCUSSION

         Prince argues that ALJ DiBicarro's Decision should be reversed or remanded for three reasons. First, she argues that certain documents that should have been considered by the ALJ were not in the Record. See Pl.'s Mem. at 8-9. Second, Prince argues that the ALJ erred by ignoring testimony from the vocational expert that there was no work available for her. See id. at 9-10. Third, she argues that the ALJ erred by not finding several ailments to be severe, not determining that her combination of impairments meet or medically equal the listed impairments, and ignoring impairments that were not found to be severe. See id. at 5-7.

         Prince's first argument-that certain medical documents she provided to her counsel are missing from the Record-is her only argument that the Record was incomplete. See Pl.'s Mem. in Reply to the Def.'s Mem. (“Pl.'s Reply”) (Doc. No. 37) at 2. Although she does not argue that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the Record in other respects, in view of the “special solicitude” courts accorded to pro se litigants, the court will construe Prince's specific failure to develop the record claim as encompassing other aspects of the Record the ALJ had a duty to develop. See Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006) (“It is well established that the submissions of a pro se litigant must be construed liberally and interpreted ‘to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'”) (quoting Pabon v. Wright, 459 F.3d 241, 248 (2d Cir. 2006)).

         Upon review of the Record, the court concludes that the ALJ committed legal error by failing to adequately develop the Record to obtain clarification from Prince's treating physician, and therefore remand is appropriate. Upon remand, the court suggests that the ALJ should also develop the Record regarding Prince's explanations for her decision not to undergo carpal tunnel release and the gap in her treatment before drawing an adverse inference about her credibility on either of those bases.

         A. Duty to ...

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