United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS TO REVERSE AND AFFIRM THE
DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
JEFFREY ALKER MEYER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Anthony Perez alleges that he is disabled and cannot work as
a result of a combination of impairments, including both a
cluster of mental illnesses such as depression and
post-traumatic stress disorder and also physical impairments,
chiefly spinal stenosis in his lower back. He has brought
this action seeking review of a final decision of defendant
Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for
Supplemental Security Income Benefits. For the reasons that
follow, I will grant plaintiff's motion to remand the
Commissioner's decision (Doc. #16) and deny
defendant's motion to affirm the Commissioner's
decision (Doc. #26).
Perez has struggled with depression for most of his life, and
it is not hard to see why. When he was little, as young as
six years old, plaintiff was severely abused by his uncles,
both physically and sexually. Doc. #12-3 at 86-87; Doc. #12-8
at 77. After he tried to tell his mother, she whipped him
rather than taking any action to protect him. Doc. #12-8 at
177. Plaintiff was also physically abused by his father and
witness to his father's violence against his mother.
Ibid. Unsurprisingly, he has had extraordinary
psychological problems ever since. Id. at 77. He
began using marijuana at the age of nine, drinking alcohol at
the age of fifteen, and taking cocaine at the age of
eighteen; by the time he was thirty he had also started using
heroin. Id. at 81. He left home at age sixteen, and
appears to have essentially been homeless ever since.
Id. at 98.
the course of his life, plaintiff has attempted suicide six
times, employing a wide variety of different methods.
Id. at 177. At least two of these suicide attempts
left him in the hospital, once in 1981 (when plaintiff was
sixteen or seventeen) and once in 1998. Ibid. During
the recent depressive episode that occasioned this
application for disability benefits, which episode appears to
have begun around March 2014, he has been experiencing nearly
constant passive suicidal ideation, as is reflected
throughout the record. See, e.g., Doc. #12-8 at 58,
77, 97, 102, 175, 177, 181, 195, 197, 222, Doc. #12-9 at 2,
15, 19, 85, 111, 114. He also actually attempted suicide by
cutting his wrists in early May 2014, around the same time
that he submitted his application for disability benefits.
Doc. #12-8 at 97. Plaintiff has been diagnosed not only with
major depressive disorder but also with post-traumatic stress
disorder (“PTSD”) and with a generalized anxiety
disorder. See, e.g., id. at 176.
plaintiff's mental illnesses his only serious medical
problems. He has suffered from diabetes mellitus since 2005,
id. at 24, and the past medical history section on
his recent medical records indicates that he has suffered
neuropathy in his feet as a consequence of his diabetes.
See Doc. #12-3 at 105, 108; Doc. #12-8 at 21, 175,
178; Doc. #12-9 at 2, 170, 172, 176. He has had serious lower
back pain since 1997, which was diagnosed as lumbar spinal
stenosis at around the same time he submitted his application
for disability benefits. Doc. #12-9 at 97-99. He additionally
suffers from hepatitis C, which seems to have been treated
successfully, see id. at 123-26. And his medical
records also mention hypertension, Doc. #12-8 at 24, 28,
asthma, id. at 234, Doc. #12-9 at 173, and syphilis,
Doc. #12-8 at 37.
record reflects medical treatment for plaintiff's recent
bout of depression beginning on March 20, 2014. Doc. #12-8 at
58. He sought care at Catholic Charities in Hartford on April
25, 2014, which completed a detailed intake evaluation of
him, id. at 77-91, and on May 14, 2014 went to
Hartford Hospital, which discharged him the same day. Doc.
#12-9 at 130-43. He was admitted to the Adult Day Treatment
program at the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network
on May 22, 2014, and discharged on August 13, 2014. Doc.
#12-8 at 233-36. While he was there, his treatment was
largely overseen by clinician Traicy A. Garbarino and Dr.
Tilla Ruser, MD, who completed an evaluation of his
functioning on June 10, 2014, id. at 93-96, and an
evaluation for purposes of his application for disability
benefits from the State of Connecticut on June 13, 2014,
id. at 220-29.
early August 2014, plaintiff began treatment at the Wheeler
Clinic, where his care was overseen by Peter Rogers, MA, and
Dr. Sharon Hasbani, MD. He was briefly discharged from
Wheeler Clinic on July 13, 2015, but resumed treatment there
eleven days later. Doc. #12-9 at 10, 15. On March 10, 2015,
Rogers and Dr. Hasbani completed a medical evaluation in
support of plaintiff's application for Connecticut
disability benefits. Id. at 83-92.
record also contains evidence concerning plaintiff's
course of treatment for his back pain, which is discussed in
his medical records as far back as February 2013,
see Doc. #12-8 at 20. On April 16, 2014, plaintiff
saw Dr. Qassem Kishawi, MD, who diagnosed him with spinal
stenosis. Doc. #12-9 at 97, 99. At the time plaintiff
reported that he had tried physical therapy, which only made
the pain worse. Id. at 97. Dr. Kishawi prescribed
epidural steroid injections, id. at 99, and three
such injections were performed over the next three months.
Id. at 100-102. These do not appear to have been
very effective either; as of January 28, 2016, plaintiff
stated that he was “currently considering recommended
back surgery.” Id. at 167.
has held a number of odd jobs over the years, often working
for temp agencies, and was most recently employed assembling
cabinets in 2013 and early 2014. Doc. #12-6 at 11- 15; Doc.
#12-3 at 57-60. According to plaintiff, he was let go from
this cabinet-making job because his physical impairments had
made him decreasingly capable of performing his work there.
Doc. #12-3 at 60 (“And there came a time when I
couldn't even hold a drill anymore because my hands cramp
up and I couldn't carry anything. I was falling. I fell
like three times in the job. I was dropping the countertops.
So he [plaintiff's boss] came to me nicely and he told me
that they couldn't have me anymore because of my
filed a claim for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on
May 2, 2014. Doc. #12-6 at 2. His claim was denied initially
on July 21, 2014, and then again on reconsideration on
September 30, 2014. Id. Plaintiff then requested a
hearing before an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”), and a hearing was held on May 19, 2016.
Id. at 27, 46-99. The ALJ issued his decision
denying plaintiff's application on September 21, 2016,
id. at 40, and the Social Security
Administration's Appeals Council denied plaintiff's
appeal of that decision on December 1, 2016. Id. at
2. Plaintiff then filed this civil action on January 12,
2017, Doc. #1, and has moved to reverse the decision of the
Commission. Doc. #16. Defendant has cross-moved to affirm the
decision of the Commissioner. Doc. #26.
Court may “set aside the Commissioner's
determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the
factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence or
if the decision is based on legal error.” Burgess
v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted); see also 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more
than a mere scintilla” and “means such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Lesterhuis v. Colvin,
805 F.3d 83, 87 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam). Absent
a legal error, this Court must uphold the Commissioner's
decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and even
if this Court might have ruled differently had it considered
the matter in the first instance. See Eastman v.
Barnhart, 241 F.Supp.2d 160, 168 (D. Conn. 2003).
evaluate a claimant's disability and determine whether he
qualifies for benefits, the agency engages in a
well-established five-step process. See Cage v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122-23 (2d Cir.
2012). The claimant bears the burden of proving his case at
steps one through four. At step one, the claimant must show
that he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity. At step two, he must show that he suffers from a
“severe impairment” that significantly limits his
physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. At
step three, if the claimant can show that one or more of his
severe impairments meets or medically equals in severity one
of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P,
app. 1, then he will be considered disabled without further
inquiry. If not, then at step four he must show that he lacks
the residual functional capacity ...