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Ricci v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 29, 2018

LISA RICCI, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          STEFAN R. UNDERHILL Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge.

         In the instant Social Security appeal, Lisa Ricci moves to reverse the decision by the Social Security Administration (SSA) denying her disability insurance benefits. The Commissioner of Social Security moves to affirm the decision. I conclude that Ricci's arguments for reversal lack merit and that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)'s decision that Ricci could perform other work was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, I grant the Commissioner's motion and deny Ricci's.

         I. Standard of Review

         The SSA follows a five-step process to evaluate disability claims. Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (per curiam). First, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant currently engages in “substantial gainful activity.” Greek v. Colvin, 802 F.3d 370, 373 n.2 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)). Second, if the claimant is not working, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “‘severe' impairment, ” i.e., an impairment that limits his or her ability to do work-related activities (physical or mental). Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521). Third, if the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner determines whether the impairment is considered “per se disabling” under SSA regulations. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). If the impairment is not per se disabling, then, before proceeding to step four, the Commissioner determines the claimant's “residual functional capacity” based on “all the relevant medical and other evidence of record.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), (e), 404.1545(a)). “Residual functional capacity” is defined as “what the claimant can still do despite the limitations imposed by his [or her] impairment.” Id. Fourth, the Commissioner decides whether the claimant's residual functional capacity allows him or her to return to “past relevant work.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), (f), 404.1560(b)). Fifth, if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the Commissioner determines, “based on the claimant's residual functional capacity, ” whether the claimant can do “other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 404.1560(b)). The process is “sequential, ” meaning that a petitioner will be judged disabled only if he or she satisfies all five criteria. See id.

         The claimant bears the ultimate burden to prove that he or she was disabled “throughout the period for which benefits are sought, ” as well as the burden of proof in the first four steps of the inquiry. Id. at 374 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a)); Selian, 708 F.3d at 418. If the claimant passes the first four steps, however, there is a “limited burden shift” to the Commissioner at step five. Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam). At step five, the Commissioner need only show that “there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do; he need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's residual functional capacity.” Id.

         In reviewing a decision by the Commissioner, I conduct a “plenary review” of the administrative record but do not decide de novo whether a claimant is disabled. Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 447 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam); see Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (per curiam) (“[T]he reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn.”). I may reverse the Commissioner's decision “only if it is based upon legal error or if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Greek, 802 F.3d at 374-75. The “substantial evidence” standard is “very deferential, ” but it requires “more than a mere scintilla.” Brault, 683 F.3d at 447-48. Rather, substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Greek, 802 F.3d at 375. Unless the Commissioner relied on an incorrect interpretation of the law, “[i]f there is substantial evidence to support the determination, it must be upheld.” Selian, 708 F.3d at 417.

         II. Facts

         Lisa Ricci applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits on May 22, 2012, alleging a period of disability beginning May 1, 2010. See ALJ Hearing Decision, R. at 10. Ricci identified her disability as being due to the following illnesses and conditions: anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bleeding ulcers from stress, and depression. See Disability Determination Explanation (Initial), R. at 92.

         The SSA initially denied Ricci's claim on March 27, 2015, finding that although Ricci has severe impairments, she “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the [required] listed impairments”, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404, to receive Social Security disability insurance benefits. See ALJ Hearing Decision, R. at 13. In the agency's view, Ricci “has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b): She is limited to simple instructions, and routine and repetitive tasks, and to occasional interact[ions] with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public.” Id. at 15.

         Ricci requested a hearing with an ALJ. Id. at 10. The hearing was held on September 25, 2014. Tr. of ALJ Hr'g, R. at 29. At the hearing, ALJ Robert DiBiccaro questioned Ricci about her conditions and treatment history, particularly asking about the physical requirements of manager of the clubhouse at Greenwich Country Club, her most recent job. Id. at 51-54. Ricci replied that her job required both office work and attending meetings, and that she was “in and out of the office.” Id. at 52. The ALJ also asked Ricci generally about the “health issues” she was experiencing in 2004 and 2006 because noticed that her “salary went way down” during those years, based on her Social Security earning statement. Id. at 54-55. She replied that she suffered from both physical and mental health issues during that time, and that she was “dealing with [the physical issues] as best [she] could.” Id. at 55.

         Ricci also reported that currently, she needs to shift from a seated position to a standing position approximately every 15 to 20 minutes. Id. at 66, 72. She stated that she has difficulty climbing the stairs in her house. Id. at 67. She explained that she experiences panic attacks roughly three times per week, and that the panic attacks last between half an hour and two hours. Id. at 72-73.

         Ricci's husband was present at the hearing but did not testify. ALJ Hearing Decision, R. at 10.

         On March 27, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion in which he found that Ricci “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 1, 2010, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).” Id. at 21.

         At the first step, the ALJ found that “there has been a continuous 12-month period[] during which [Ricci] did not engage in substantial gainful activity.” Id. at 13.[2] At the second step, the ALJ found that Ricci's “depressive disorder…chronic pain syndrome; alcohol dependence; [and] grade 1 spondylisthesis of the lumbar spine at ¶ 4-5 with stenosis” were “severe impairments” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Id.[3] At the third step, the ALJ determined that Ricci's impairments were not per se disabling because Ricci “d[id] not have an impairment or combination of impairments that me[t] or medically equal[ed a] listed impairment.” Id.

         The ALJ then assessed Ricci's residual functional capacity, and found that she could “perform light work, ” with certain limitations. Id. at 15. Those limitations were that Ricci (1) could follow only “simple instructions, ” (2) could complete only “routine and repetitive tasks, ” and (3) could interact occasionally “with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public.” Id. at 15.

         Although Ricci's residual functional capacity precluded performance of her past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Ricci] c[ould] perform.” Id. at 20-21. The ALJ based that decision on Ricci's residual functional capacity in conjunction with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines and determined that a finding of “not disabled” was therefore appropriate under the framework of the Medical-Vocational rules. Id. at 21. The ALJ denied Ricci's request for disability benefits. Id.

         Ricci requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the SSA's Appeals Council on April 23, 2015. Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order, R. at 5. Holding that there was “no reason . . . to review the [ALJ]'s decision, ” the Appeals Counsel “denied [Ricci's] request for review” on May 20, 2016. Notice of Appeals Council Action, R. at 1. Ricci then filed a complaint with this court urging reversal of the Commissioner's decision on July 12, 2016. Compl., Doc. No. 1.

         III. ...

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