United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS
SARAH A. L. MERRIAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Ann Barnes (“plaintiff”), brings this appeal
under §205(g) of the Social Security Act (the
“Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §405(g),
seeking review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (the
“Commissioner” or “defendant”)
denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) under the Act. Plaintiff has moved to
reverse the decision of the Commissioner, or in the
alternative, for remand. [Doc. #14]. Defendant has filed a
cross-motion for an order affirming the decision of the
Commissioner. [Doc. #15].
reasons set forth below, defendant's Motion for an Order
Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc.
#15] is DENIED. Plaintiff's
Motion for Order Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner
or in the Alternative Motion for Remand for a Hearing
[Doc. #14] is GRANTED, to
the extent plaintiff seeks a remand for further
filed concurrent applications for DIB and SSI on June 14,
2013, alleging disability beginning May 1, 2012. See
Certified Transcript of the Administrative Record, compiled
on August 19, 2016, (hereinafter “Tr.”) 212-26.
Plaintiff's application was denied initially on September
11, 2013, see Tr. 127-35, and upon reconsideration on
November 14, 2013. See Tr. 137-44.
October 6, 2014, plaintiff, accompanied and represented by
attorney Olia Ylener, appeared and testified at a hearing
before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Lisa
Groenveld-Meijer. See Tr. 36-82. Vocational Expert
(“VE”) Faith A. Johnson also appeared and
testified by telephone at this hearing. See Tr. 73-81,
195-96. On November 5, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable
decision. See Tr. 15-35. On May 6, 2016, the Appeals Council
denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the
ALJ's November 5, 2014, decision the final decision of
the Commissioner. See Tr. 1-4. The case is now ripe for
review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
filed this timely action for review and now moves to reverse
the Commissioner's decision or for remand. [Doc. #14]. On
appeal, plaintiff asserts that:
1. The ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion evidence;
2. The ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's pain;
3. The ALJ failed to properly determine plaintiff's
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”); and 4. The
ALJ erred at step five of the sequential evaluation.
generally Doc. #14-1 at 12-20. As set forth below, the Court
concludes that the ALJ's RFC determination is not
supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ erred in
her consideration of plaintiff's intellectual disability.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
review of a Social Security disability determination involves
two levels of inquiry. First, the Court must decide whether
the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in
making the determination. Second, the Court must decide
whether the determination is supported by substantial
evidence. See Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d
Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence is
evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to
support a conclusion; it is more than a “mere
scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v.
NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The reviewing
court's responsibility is to ensure that a claim has been
fairly evaluated by the ALJ. See Grey v. Heckler,
721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983) (citation omitted).
Court does not reach the second stage of review - evaluating
whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
conclusion - if the Court determines that the ALJ failed to
apply the law correctly. See Norman v. Astrue, 912
F.Supp.2d 33, 70 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (“The Court first
reviews the Commissioner's decision for compliance with
the correct legal standards; only then does it determine
whether the Commissioner's conclusions were supported by
substantial evidence.” (citing Tejada v.
Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999))).
“Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether
the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the
substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no
disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will
be deprived of the right to have her disability determination
made according to the correct legal principles.”
Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987).
crucial factors in any determination must be set forth with
sufficient specificity to enable [a reviewing court] to
decide whether the determination is supported by substantial
evidence.” Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582,
587 (2d Cir. 1984) (alterations added) (citing Treadwell
v. Schweiker, 698 F.2d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1983)). The ALJ
is free to accept or reject the testimony of any witness, but
a “finding that the witness is not credible must
nevertheless be set forth with sufficient specificity to
permit intelligible plenary review of the record.”
Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255,
260-61 (2d Cir. 1988) (citing Carroll v. Sec. Health and
Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 643 (2d Cir. 1983)).
“Moreover, when a finding is potentially dispositive on
the issue of disability, there must be enough discussion to
enable a reviewing court to determine whether substantial
evidence exists to support that finding.” Johnston
v. Colvin, No. 3:13CV00073(JCH), 2014 WL 1304715, at *6
(D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (citing Peoples v. Shalala,
No. 92CV4113, 1994 WL 621922, at *4 (N.D.Ill. Nov. 4,
important to note that in reviewing the ALJ's decision,
this Court's role is not to start from scratch. “In
reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited
to determining whether the SSA's conclusions were
supported by substantial evidence in the record and were
based on a correct legal standard.” Talavera v.
Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting
Lamay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 507
(2d Cir. 2009)).
SSA LEGAL STANDARD
the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a
disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42
considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to
benefits, plaintiff must demonstrate that she is unable to
work after a date specified “by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which can be
expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be
expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). Such impairment
or impairments must be “of such severity that [s]he 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.” 42 U.S.C.
§423(d)(2)(A)(alterations added); 20 C.F.R.
§§404.1520(c), 416.920(c) (requiring that the
impairment “significantly limit ... physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities” to be
considered “severe” (alterations
is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a
person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520,
416.920. In the Second Circuit, the test is described as
First, the Secretary considers whether the claimant is
currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is
not, the Secretary next considers whether the claimant has a
“severe impairment” which 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 which is listed in Appendix 1 of the
regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the
Secretary will consider him disabled without considering
vocational factors such as age, education, and work