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Vasquez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 12, 2018

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


          WILLIAM I. GARFINKEL United States Magistrate Judge

         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Soraida Vasquez's, application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). 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 her case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 18]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision. [Doc. # 25]. The undersigned heard oral argument on February 7, 2018.[2]For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion for an order reversing or remanding the ALJ's decision is granted, and the Commissioner's motion for an order affirming that decision is denied.


         “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 her applications for DIB and SSI on November 16, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of March 22, 2011. Her claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On May 13, 2015, a hearing was held before administrative law judge Jason Mastrangelo (the “ALJ”). On June 3, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was 47 years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 57). She has a high school education and past work experience as a home health aide, assembly machine operator, and certified nursing assistant. At oral argument, the parties stipulated to Plaintiff's medical history as set forth collectively in the briefing. The Court adopts the medical chronology as represented and incorporates it 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 since the alleged onset date. (R. 26). At step two, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; partial left rotator cuff tear; degenerative joint disease. (R. 26). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 28). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[3]:

Plaintiff can perform less than the full range of light work: she can lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can sit for 6 hours and stand or walk for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday. She cannot reach overhead with the non-dominant left upper extremity, may occasionally reach overhead with the right dominant upper extremity, and may occasionally operate hand controls bilaterally. ...

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