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Rivera v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 28, 2018



          Jeffrey Alker Meyer, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Carmen Rivera alleges that she is disabled and cannot work because of, among other impairments, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), she seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for social security disability and supplemental security income. The parties have now filed cross-motions to reverse and affirm.[1] For the reasons explained below, I will deny plaintiff's motion to reverse and grant the Commissioner's motion to affirm.


         The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #18-1 through Doc. #18-9. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II on April 26, 2013, and filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI on May 20, 2013. In both applications, she alleges a disability onset date of December 9, 2012. Plaintiff most recently worked for Yale-New Haven Hospital for approximately five years in the environmental services department and ended her employment there in early 2013. Doc. #18-6 at 17. Plaintiff's claims were denied on August 14, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on November 13, 2013. Plaintiff then timely filed a written demand for a hearing.

         Plaintiff appeared and testified before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) I. K. Harrington on November 13, 2014. Plaintiff was represented by counsel. Vocational expert Albert Sabella testified at the hearing. On March 17, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Doc. #18-3 at 26-40. On September 1, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. Doc. #18-3 at 12. Plaintiff timely filed this federal action seeking review of the ALJ's decision. See Doc. #1.

         To qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, ” and “the impairment must be ‘of such severity that [the claimant] 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.'” Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d 42, 45 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 423(d)(2)(A)). “[W]ork exists in the national economy when it exists in significant numbers either in the region where [a claimant] live[s] or in several other regions of the country, ” and “when there is a significant number of jobs (in one or more occupations) having requirements which [a claimant] [is] able to meet with [her] physical or mental abilities and vocational qualifications.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.966(a)-(b); see also Kennedy v. Astrue, 343 F.App'x 719, 722 (2d Cir. 2009).

         To evaluate a claimant's disability, and to determine whether she qualifies for benefits, the agency engages in the following five-step process:

First, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Where the claimant is not, the Commissioner next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” that significantly limits her 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 that is listed [in the so-called “Listings”] ¶ 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. If the claimant has a listed impairment, the Commissioner will consider the claimant disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Commissioner presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a listed impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, she has the residual functional capacity to perform her past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform her past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to determine whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122-23 (2d Cir. 2012) (alteration in original) (citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). In applying this framework, an ALJ may find a claimant to be disabled or not disabled at a particular step and may make a decision without proceeding to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proving the case at Steps One through Four; at Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that there is other work that the claimant can perform. See McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. At Step One, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment activity since December 9, 2012, the date of the alleged onset of her disability. Doc. #18-3 at 29. The ALJ observed that plaintiff's earning records reflected that she earned $1, 217.79 in 2013, but that the amount is below the $1, 040 per month presumptive level for substantial gainful activity. Ibid.

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following “severe impairments” during the relevant time period: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis. Ibid. At Step Three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 29- 30.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except [plaintiff] can frequently stoop, and occasionally, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, ” but she is limited to “simple routine tasks involving no more than simple, short instructions and simple work-related decisions with few workplace changes.” Id. at 33. Additionally, plaintiff “can have no interaction with the general public, cannot perform tandem tasks, and can occasionally interact with co-workers and supervisors.” Ibid.

         In formulating the residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ accorded “substantial weight” to the opinions of non-examining medical and psychological consultants of the state agency. Id. at 35. The initial consultant was Rafael Wurzel, M.D., and the reconsideration consultant was Lewis Cylus, M.D. Ibid. The medical consultants concluded that plaintiff was capable of performing light work. Doc. #18-4 at 14, 44. They further opined that plaintiff could occasionally lift 20 pounds, frequently lift 10 pounds, stand, walk, or sit for six to eight hours per day, with some postural limitations, but no manipulative limitations. Id. at 10-12, 40-42. Dr. Cylus explained that plaintiff had a history of rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, but that there was no evidence of active synovitis-i.e., inflammation. Id. at 41. He did note arthralgias, but plaintiff had a normal gait, 70-degree lumbar flex, normal toe/heel gait, and a full squat. Ibid.

         As to the psychological opinions, Robert Decarli, Psy.D. opined that plaintiff could perform simple work for two-hour periods in an eight-hour day with adequate concentration and pace, but could have occasional problems with prolonged concentration and sustained pace due to her lowered mood. Id. at 12. He rated plaintiff's individual sustained concentration and persistence limitations, social interaction limitations, and adaption limitations to be either “not significantly limited” or “moderately limited.” Id. at 11-13. On reconsideration, Deborah Stack, Psy.D. reached the same conclusion. Id. at 42-43.

         The ALJ accorded the opinion of Herbert Reiher, M.D., the physical consultative examiner partial weight. Doc. #18-3 at 35. The ALJ accorded great weight to Dr. Reiher's opinion that plaintiff could sit, stand, or walk for six hours in an eight-hour work day, lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally, and was limited in her ability to squat and reach. Ibid. She accorded less weight to Dr. Reiher's opinion regarding plaintiff's limitations with respect to ...

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