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Rodriguez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 5, 2018

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



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Jorge Rodriguez's, application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). It is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]

         Plaintiff now moves for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), or in the alternative, an order remanding his case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 16]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision. [Doc. # 17]. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         “A district court reviewing a final . . . decision [of the Commissioner of Social Security] pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is performing an appellate function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842 (2d Cir. 1981). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, [are] conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accordingly, the district court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. Id.; Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the court's function is to first ascertain whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in reaching her conclusion, and then whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). Therefore, absent legal error, a decision of the Commissioner cannot be set aside if it is supported by substantial evidence. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). Further, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, that decision will be sustained, even where there may also be substantial evidence to support the plaintiff's contrary position. Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982).

         Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence must be “more than a scintilla or touch of proof here and there in the record.” Williams, 859 F.2d at 258.


         a. Facts

         Plaintiff filed his DIB application on March 18, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of November 30, 2006. His date last insured is December 31, 2011.[2] Plaintiff's claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before administrative law judge Sharda Singh (the “ALJ”) on February 25, 2015. On April 22, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, making it the final decision of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was forty-four years old on the date his DIB application was filed. He has a high school education and has completed training to be a nurse's aide. Plaintiff has past work experience as a delivery driver and as a nurse's aide. In 2006, Plaintiff suffered a work-related back injury for which he had two surgeries. Plaintiff has not worked since this injury. In accordance with the Court's scheduling order, the parties stipulated to Plaintiff's medical background as presented in the brief accompanying Plaintiff's motion. [Doc. # 16]. The Court adopts these facts and incorporates them by reference herein.

         b. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims. At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date through the date last insured. (R. 25). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's lower back surgery to be a severe impairment. (R. 25). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 25-26). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[3]:

Plaintiff can perform sedentary work except he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and should avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations, hazards, and extreme cold or heat.

(R. 26-31). At Step Four, the ALJ found that through the date last insured, Plaintiff was unable to perform his past work. (R. 31). Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the Vocational Expert (“VE”) to find that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy during the relevant period that Plaintiff could have performed. (R. 31-32). Specifically, the VE testified that Plaintiff could have performed the positions of document preparer, order clerk, and surveillance system monitor. (R. 32). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled.


         The Social Security Act defines disability as “[an] inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In order to determine whether ...

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