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Maerkel v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 19, 2018



          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Deborah Standard Maerkel alleges that she is disabled and cannot work because of, among other impairments, hypertension, obesity, posttraumatic arthritis in the left ankle, hypothyroidism, and depression. She filed 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 social security disability insurance benefits. For the reasons explained below, I will grant plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. #16), which I construe as a motion to reverse or remand the decision of the Commissioner, and I will deny the Commissioner's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #19).


         The Court refers to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #14-1 through Doc. #14-12. Plaintiff filed an application for social security disability insurance benefits on August 24, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of June 15, 2013. Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on October 8, 2015, and denied again upon reconsideration on November 12, 2015. She then filed a written request for a hearing on December 8, 2015.

         Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) I. K. Harrington on May 18, 2016. Plaintiff was represented by counsel. On June 29, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Doc. #14-3 at 18-33. The Appeals Council affirmed the decision of the ALJ on December 9, 2016. Plaintiff then filed this federal action on February 6, 2017.

         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 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 Fed.Appx. 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 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 March 31, 2015. Doc. #14-3 at 21. Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 15, 2013, the date of the alleged onset of her disability. At Step Two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “hypertension, obesity, and post-traumatic arthritis in the left ankle.” Ibid. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff's medically determinable impairments of hypothyroidism and depression were non-severe. Id. at 21-24.

         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 24.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that, through the date of last insured, plaintiff “had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except the claimant is capable of sitting for six hours, and standing and/or walking for one and a half hours. She is capable of occasional pushing and/or pulling and operating of left foot controls. The claimant is further capable of occasional balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and climb ramps and stairs, but she should never crawl, or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and she should not have direct exposure to unprotected heights.” Id. at 25.

         As to plaintiff's credibility, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms are not consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” Id. at 27.

         The ALJ also concluded at Step Four that plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as an account clerk. Id. at 30. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert, who the ALJ stated had considered plaintiff's ...

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