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Herren v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 16, 2018

SHIRLEY LOIS HERREN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          RULING ON PENDING MOTIONS

          WILLIAM I. GARFINKEL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Shirley Lois Herren'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. # 16]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision. [Doc. # 17]. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's motion is granted and the Commissioner's motion is denied.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         “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.

         BACKGROUND

         a. Facts

         Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI on December 3, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of May 15, 2012. Her claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On December 4, 2014, a hearing was held before administrative law judge Ronald J. Thomas (“the ALJ”). On February 27, 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 30 years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 38). At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was living in an inpatient treatment facility. (Id.). She has a high school education. (R. 40-41). Plaintiff last worked in May 2012 as a waitress. (R. 41). She has additional past work experience as front desk agent at several hotels. (Id.). Plaintiff is alleging disability based on both physical and mental impairments. The parties have stipulated to Plaintiff's medical chronology as set forth in Doc. # 16-2. The Court adopts this medical chronology and incorporates it by reference herein.

         b. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims.[2] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 20). At step two, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; polysubstance abuse in remission; lower back pain; bilateral foot pain. (Id.). 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. 20-21). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[3]:

Plaintiff can perform sedentary work except she is limited to performing simple, routine, repetitious work with only occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. She is further limited to only occasional bending, twisting, squatting, kneeling, crawling, climbing, and balancing. She cannot operate foot controls bilaterally.

(R. 21-26). At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform her past work. (R. 26). Finally, at step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) to find that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (R. 26-27). Specifically, the VE testified that the person with the assessed RFC could perform the positions ...


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