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Geckle v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 26, 2018

DONALD GECKLE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY E. BERRYHILL, [1] ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, U.S.A., Defendant.

          RULING RE: CROSS MOTIONS TO REVERSE AND AFFIRM DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DOC. NOS. 17 & 18)

          JANET C. HALL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Donald Geckle (“Geckle”) brings this action under title 42 section 405(g) of the United States Code, appealing from the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”), who denied his application for Title II disability insurance benefits in whole, based on a finding that Geckle was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (“Pl.'s Mot.”) (Doc. No. 17). The Commissioner cross-moves for an order affirming that decision. See Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (Def.'s Mot.) (Doc. No. 18).

         For the reasons set forth below, Geckle's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 17) is denied, and the Commissioner's Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 18) is granted.

         II. RELEVANT FACTS[2]

         The court adopts the facts to which the parties stipulated, see Def.'s Mot. at 3, and it will therefore only briefly describe the facts relevant to this opinion.

         Geckle was 67 years old at the time of his hearing in May 2015. See Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of Motion to Reverse (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 17-2) at 3. He has a bachelor's degree in school psychology and a MBA in computer and information science. Id. He has worked in a variety of professional roles, most recently as a fulfillment manager. Id. He has also worked as a systems consultant. Id.

         In 2009, Geckle was bit by a tick and contracted Lyme disease. See Certified Transcript of Record (“R.”) (Doc. No. 11) at 33 (hearing testimony of Geckle). Since that time, Geckle has reported physical and mental fatigue. Id. at 34. Between 2009 and 2011, Geckle gradually reduced his hours at work until he was working only fifteen hours per week. See id. at 233 (letter of Michael P. Meskill, former employer of Geckle). Then, on March 1, 2011, Geckle's employment was terminated because he was unable to do any physical labor. See id.

         According to the medical evidence in the Record, Geckle has been diagnosed with a wide array of illnesses and disorders, including: Lyme Disease, R. at 490, 494, 605, 612, 635, 665; Chronic Fatigue, id. at 356, 475, 495, 607, 614; Chronic Pain Syndrome, id. at 607, 614; Degenerative Joint Disease, id. at 625; Depressive Disorder, id. at 321, 409, 486, 490, 605, 607, 612, 635, 664; Mood Disorder, id. at 321, 486, 490, 605, 612, 635, 664; and Obstructive Sleep Apnea, id. at 605, 665. See also Pl.'s Mem. at 3-4 (listing all diagnoses with cites to the Record).

         III. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Geckle applied for Title II disability insurance benefits on November 7, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2011. See R. at 11. His application was denied initially on March 14, 2013, and, upon reconsideration, was denied again on June 7, 2013. See id. at 47-71. Geckle then filed a written request for a hearing on July 17, 2013. Id. at 83-84. That hearing took place on May 29, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge Ryan Alger (“ALJ Alger”). See id. at 26-46 (transcript of hearing). Geckle was present and testified at the hearing, and was represented by Attorney Ivan Ramos. See id. Vocational expert Michael La Raia[3] (“La Raia”) also testified at the hearing. See id.

         On June 28, 2015, ALJ Alger issued a Decision denying Geckle's application for disability insurance benefits. See id. at 11-21. In that Decision, ALJ Alger found that Geckle had acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through March 31, 2014, meaning that Geckle would need to have been disabled between March 1, 2011, and March 31, 2014, in order to be eligible for disability insurance benefits. See id. at 11. ALJ Alger further found that Geckle suffered from a severe impairment of Lyme disease, as well as non-severe impairments including obesity, hypertension, kidney disease, and cervicalgia. Id. at 13-14. ALJ Alger also found that Geckle suffered from depression, but that it was a non-severe impairment because it “did not cause more than minimal limitation in [Geckle]'s ability to perform basic mental work activities.” Id. at 14. ALJ Alger discussed Geckle's alleged impairment of chronic fatigue, but found that it was a “non-medically determinable impairment” because there was no “medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings” supporting chronic fatigue, and the regulations prohibit finding an impairment “based on symptoms alone.” Id. Thus, while ALJ Alger acknowledged that Geckle had been “very adamant about suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, ” he concluded that “chronic fatigue syndrome has not been found to be a medically determinable impairment.” Id. at 15-16.

         ALJ Alger concluded that Geckle had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b).”[4] Id. at 16. In so concluding, ALJ Alger found that Geckle's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms” but his “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible.” Id. at 17. For example, ALJ Alger noted that Geckle's treatment records indicate that he is fatigued “only after exertion and that the fatigue might decrease if he used his [continuous position airway pressure (“CPAP”) machine] while he slept.” Id. ALJ Alger noted that Geckle received unemployment benefits after he was laid off in March 2011, which “required [Geckle] to certify he was willing and able to engage in work activity, ” and that Geckle had not followed his physician's advice to use a CPAP machine while sleeping. Id. “If the claimant's fatigue were as debilitating as the claimant alleged, ” ALJ Alger stated, “one would expect him to accept his provider's treatment recommendations and be willing to do what is necessary to improve his condition.” Id. at 17-18. ALJ Alger further noted that Geckle was going to the gym to use the bike and weight machines. Id. at 18.

         ALJ Alger considered the opinion evidence in the Record, including a treating source opinion submitted by one of Geckle's treating physicians, Dr. Zijad Sabovic, to whom he gave little weight because “her opinion is not supported by the claimant's other medical records, or by the claimant's own assertions.” Id. at 19. He also considered letters submitted on Geckle's behalf by a neighbor, Dr. Dan Wilensky; his former employer, Mr. Meskill; and a member of Geckle's church, Ms. Welton. Id. at 20.

         Finally, ALJ Alger considered the testimony of vocational expert La Raia, who testified that someone with substantially the same RFC as Geckle could perform two of the positions Geckle had held in the past fifteen years, specifically his most recent position as fulfillment manager and an earlier position as a systems consultant. Id. ALJ Alger found that these positions qualified as “past relevant work that [Geckle] could actually and generally perform in the national economy” based on his RFC determination. Id. at 21. ALJ Alger, therefore, concluded that Geckle was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time period of March 1, 2011, through March 31, 2014. Id.

         Geckle appealed ALJ Alger's Decision, which appeal was denied by the Social Security Appeals Council on December 20, 2016, rendering ALJ Alger's Decision a final decision eligible for district court review. See id. at 1-3; 42 U.S.C. 405(g).

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under title 42 section 405(g) of the United States Code, it is not the district court's function to determine de novo whether the claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Instead, the court is limited to two lines of inquiry: whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard, and whether the record contains “substantial evidence” to support his decision. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999). “Substantial evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

         V. DISCUSSION

         In his Motion to Reverse, Geckle makes two arguments as to why ALJ Alger's Decision should be reversed or, in the alternative, vacated and remanded: (1) that ALJ Alger failed to adequately develop the record, Pl.'s Mem. at 13-15; and (2) that ALJ Alger's RFC determination was not ...


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