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Blodgett v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 24, 2018




         Plaintiff Grace Lillian Blodgett alleges that she is disabled and cannot work primarily because of migraines, chronic severe pain, and deficits in attention and memory. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), she seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for social security disability and supplemental security income. On August 28, 2017, plaintiff filed a motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner. Doc. #14. The Commissioner has not responded to plaintiff's motion. For the reasons explained below, I will grant plaintiff's motion and remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


         The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #12-1 through Doc. #12-10. Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on October 22, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of October 5, 2012. Plaintiff most recently worked in various capacities for Metro Ministries of Brooklyn, New York, ending her 10-year tenure with her employer in 2012 for medical reasons. Plaintiff's claims were denied on February 15, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on May 3, 2013. Plaintiff then filed a written demand for a hearing.

         Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Barry Best on January 22, 2015. Plaintiff was represented by counsel. A vocational expert testified at the hearing. On March 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Doc. #12-3 at 22-39. After the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff filed this federal action.

         To qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that she 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 [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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 [her] physical or mental abilities and vocational qualifications.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.966(a)-(b); see also Kennedy v. Astrue, 343 F. App'x 719, 722 (2d Cir. 2009).

         To evaluate a claimant's disability, and to determine whether she 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 concluded that the 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 October 5, 2012, the date of the alleged onset of her disability. Doc. #12-3 at 24. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the following “severe impairments” during the relevant time period: fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, organic mental disorder, and migraines. Ibid.

         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. Id. at 25.

         At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “the residual functional capacity to perform work at the light exertional level, as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), ” but with the following limitations: plaintiff “is able to maintain concentration and attention sufficient to perform only uncomplicated work tasks over an eight hour workday, assuming short work breaks on average every two hours, with no more than occasional changes in the work setting.” Id. at 27. In formulating this residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ “accorded great weight” to administrative findings of fact made by the non-examining medical and psychological consultants for the state agency. Id. at 30. By contrast, the ALJ concluded that the opinion of plaintiff's primary treating physician, Dr. Claire Warren, “cannot be afforded significant evidentiary weight.” Id. at 29. The ALJ also found that while plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some symptoms of the type she alleges, . . . her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms (and some of those made on her behalf) are not credible.” Id. at 27. Also at step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work. Id. at 30.

         At step five, after considering the 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. Id. at 31. In reaching this conclusion the ALJ relied on the testimony of the vocational expert, Kenneth R. Smith, who testified at the administrative hearing that plaintiff could perform representative occupations such as cashier, cleaner, light assembler, sedentary assembler, hand packager, or ...

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