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Barnes v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 9, 2018

ANN BARNES
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS

          HON. SARAH A. L. MERRIAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff 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].

         For the 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 administrative proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff 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.

         On 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).

         Plaintiff 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.

         See 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.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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).

         The 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).

         “[T]he 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, 1994)).

         It is 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)).

         III. SSA LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1).

         To be 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 added)).[1]

         There 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 follows:

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 ...

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