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Ortiz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 29, 2018

DANIEL ORTIZ, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge

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

         Daniel Ortiz applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on September 5, 2013, alleging a period of disability beginning January 31, 2011. See ALJ Hearing Decision, R. at 13. Ortiz identified his disability as being due to the following illnesses and conditions: ankylosing spondylitis, depression, MDD, PTSD, myalgia weakness, myositis, disturbance of skin sensation, headaches, involuntary crying, arthritis, pain. See Disability Determination Explanation (Initial), R. at 108.

         The SSA initially denied Ortiz's claim on December 11, 2013, and upon reconsideration on April 4, 2014. ALJ Hr'g, R. at 13. Ortiz requested a hearing with an ALJ. Id. The hearing was held on May 11, 2015. Tr. of ALJ Hr'g, R. at 75. At the hearing, ALJ Ronald G. Thomas questioned Ortiz about his previous work. Id. at 38-40. Ortiz replied that he had previously held several jobs, doing the following work: packing and shipping, stocking, laundry sorting, and dishwashing. Id. The ALJ also asked Ortiz “what's been going on to keep you…from working at any job since the last job?” Id. at 40. Ortiz replied that “all the pains, and the medical conditions, mental, ” were keeping him from being able to work. Id. at 40. He stated that the worst pains were currently fibromyalgia and back pain. Id. at 41.

         Ortiz reported that his back hurts all day “just about every day” and that the pain is “on and off.” Id. at 41. He stated that he spends “a lot of the time” lying down to manage the pain, and must stand if he has been “sitting down for too long.” Id. at 41-42. He reported that he is able to walk up and down the stairs in his home and uses a cane at home to remain stable. Id. at 43.

         Ruchi, Ortiz's attorney, also questioned Ortiz. Ortiz reported that he requires Cortisone shots to help manage his pain, and that the number of shots has increased from every other month to every two weeks. Id. at 56-57. He also reported that he suffers from anxiety and depression, as well as PTSD from being molested as a child. Id. at 57-58. He stated that he has lost “almost 40 pounds” in the last year. Id. at 61. He stated that he wears compression socks, night splints, a boot, and special soles to manage issues with his feet. Id. at 62-63. He reported that he needs assistance to get dressed and tie his shoes. Id. at 64. He reported using a cane to get up to use the bathroom. Id. He stated that he had fallen approximately three times in the past six months. Id. at 65. He stated that he has some problems breathing. Id. at 66. He reported getting headaches at least one a day or every other day. Id. at 67.

         Larry Taki, an impartial vocational exert, also testified at the hearing regarding the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Id. at 69-75; ALJ Hearing Decision, R. at 13. Taki responded to hypotheticals put forth by the ALJ and Attorney Ruchi regarding individuals with limitations such as the ones Ortiz described. ALJ Decision Hearing, R. at 71-75.

         On July 23, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion finding that Ortiz “has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from January 31, 2011, through the date of this decision.” ALJ Hearing Decision, R. at 13. The ALJ found that although Ortiz has severe impairments, he “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. Id. at 16. The ALJ determined that Ortiz “has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b)...[he] is limited to occasional bending, twisting, squatting, kneeling, crawling, climbing, and balancing, ” as well as “occasional difficulties with concentration on difficult or complex tasks…[and] occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public.” Id. at 18.

         At the first step, the ALJ found that Ortiz “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 31, 2011, the alleged onset date.” Id. at 15. At the second step, the ALJ found that Ortiz's major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, multilevel spondylosis of the lumbar spine and polyarthralgias were “severe impairments” under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.1520(c). Id.[1] At the third step, the ALJ determined that Ortiz's impairments were not per se disabling because Ortiz “d[id] not have an impairment or combination of impairments that medically me[t] or equal[ed] a listed impairment” in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 16.

         The ALJ then assessed Ortiz's residual functional capacity, and found that he could “perform light work, ” with certain limitations. Id. at 18. Those limitations were that Ortiz (1) could occasionally perform tasks that would require him to bend, twist, squat, kneel, crawl, climb, and balance, (2) could occasionally complete “difficult or complex” tasks that require concentration, and (3) could interact occasionally “with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public.” Id. at 18.

         The ALJ concluded that Ortiz could perform “past relevant work as a laundry sorter as generally performed.” Id. at 22. The ALJ found that “there are other jobs existing in the national economy that he is also able to perform.” Id. at 23. The ALJ based that decision on Ortiz'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 Medical-Vocational Rule 202.18. Id. at 24. The ALJ denied Ortiz's request for disability benefits. Id.

         Ortiz requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the SSA's Appeals Council on August 31, 2015. Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order, R. at 8. Holding that there was “no reason . . . to review the [ALJ]'s decision, ” the Appeals Counsel “denied [Ortiz's] request for review” on November 8, 2016. Notice of Appeals Council Denial, R. at 1. Ortiz then filed a ...

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