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Scott v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 31, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Tyler Scott asserts that he is disabled and unable to work due to a number of mental disorders. He has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of a final decision of defendant Commissioner of Social Security, who denied plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits. For the reasons explained below, I will deny plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. #13), which I construe as a motion to reverse or remand the decision of the Commissioner, and I will grant the Commissioner's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #23).[1]


         The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #11-1 through Doc. #11-8. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on October 4, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2013. Plaintiff was 23 years old at the time of his application. Plaintiff's claim was denied on December 12, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on April 2, 2014. Plaintiff then filed a written demand for a hearing.

         Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Robert A. DiBiccaro on April 30, 2015. Plaintiff was represented by counsel. On July 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Doc. #11-3 at 38-49. After the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff filed this federal action.

         To qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that he 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 his previous work but cannot, considering his 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 his 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 he 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 [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 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, [he] has the residual functional capacity to perform [his] past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform [his] 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 plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. At Step One, the ALJ determined that plaintiff last met the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2013. Doc. #11-3 at 41. Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2013, the date of the alleged onset of his disability. Id. at 42. At Step Two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “psychotic disorder, not otherwise specified, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), unspecified schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, unspecified.” Ibid.

         At Step Three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 25. Ibid.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that, through the date of last insured, plaintiff “had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: he could have occasional contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public, ” and he “could understand and remember simple instructions and carry out routine, repetitive tasks.” Id. at 44. In formulating the residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ accorded “great weight” to the state agency reviewing consultants' psychological evaluations and “significant weight” to their mental assessments. Id. at 47.

         The ALJ accorded the multiple opinions of plaintiff's treating physician, Christine Naungayan, M.D., varying degrees of weight. The ALJ gave Dr. Naungayan's October 2013 and April 2014 opinions only “some weight, ” because plaintiff subsequently showed significant improvement after both these dates with treatment. Id. at 47, 48. To the extent that the April 2014 opinion touched upon plaintiff's stress tolerance and attendance estimates, the ALJ gave Dr. Naungayan's opinion “little weight” because of lack of support in the doctor's treatment notes. Id. at 48. The ALJ concluded that Dr. Naungayan's opinion of April 2015 should be given “no weight, ” because this opinion was not consistent with the doctor's treatment notes. Ibid.

         As to plaintiff's credibility, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms are not entirely credible.” Id. at 45. The ALJ gave the testimony of plaintiff's step-father, who also testified at the hearing, “little weight.” Id. at 48. Also at Step Four, the ALJ concluded that there was insufficient evidence to make a determination whether plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a machine stocker. Ibid.

         At Step Five, after considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that, through the date of last insured, there were jobs that plaintiff could perform that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 49. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ relied on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Grids”), 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. Ibid. The ALJ also gave significant weight to the state agency finding that plaintiff is capable of performing work as a surveillance system monitor, type-copy examiner, and printed circuit layout taper. Ibid. Because plaintiff's nonexertional limitations “had little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled work at all exertional levels, ” the ALJ believed it appropriate to rely on the Grids in making his Step Five finding. Ibid. The ALJ ultimately held that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 50.

         On December 15, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 2. Plaintiff submitted additional evidence for the Appeals Council to consider, but the Appeals Council declined to consider the evidence because it did not meet the criteria for consideration set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 405.401(c). Plaintiff then timely filed this case on February 13, 2017.


         The Court may ordinarily “set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the decision is based on legal error.” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127 (2d Cir. 2008); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla” and “means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lesterhuis v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 83, 87 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam). Absent a legal error, this Court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by ...

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