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Haddad v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 2, 2018

BRET HADDAD, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          WILLIAM I. GARFINKEL United States Magistrate Judge

         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Bret Haddad's, application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). It is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1] Plaintiff now moves for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), or in the alternative, an order remanding his case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 15]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision. [Doc. # 18]. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is granted and the matter is remanded for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         “A district court reviewing a final . . . decision [of the Commissioner of Social Security] pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is performing an appellate function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842 (2d Cir. 1981). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, [are] conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accordingly, the district court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. Id.; Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the court's function is to first ascertain whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in reaching her conclusion, and then whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). Therefore, absent legal error, a decision of the Commissioner cannot be set aside if it is supported by substantial evidence. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). Further, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, that decision will be sustained, even where there may also be substantial evidence to support the plaintiff's contrary position. Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence must be “more than a scintilla or touch of proof here and there in the record.” Williams, 859 F.2d at 258.


         a. Facts

         Plaintiff filed his DIB application on May 30, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 20, 2013. His claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On March 25, 2015, a hearing was held before administrative law judge Deidre R. Horton (the “ALJ”). On May 15, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was fifty-one years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 44). He has thirty-seven years of experience working as a self-employed gas station owner, attendant, and mechanic. (Id.). He has not worked since the alleged disability onset date. (Id.). Plaintiff's medical history is set forth in the briefs accompanying both parties' motions. In accordance with the Court's January 16, 2018 order, the parties stipulated to Plaintiff's medical history as set forth collectively. [Doc. # 23]. The Court adopts this medical chronology as represented in the briefs and incorporates it by reference herein.

         b. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims.[2] At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 13). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease with neuropathy was a severe impairment. (R. 14). At Step Three, the ALJ found this impairment did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 16). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[3]:

Plaintiff can perform light work except he is limited to frequent climbing of ramps and stairs; frequent balancing; occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasional crouching, crawling, stooping, and kneeling; and occasional overhead lifting.

(R. 14-20). At Step Four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform his past work. (R. 20). Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert in concluding there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (R. 21). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled.


         In assessing a claimant's RFC, the ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and medical opinions, as well as the claimant's subjective symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). While the claimant bears the burden of providing evidence relevant to the RFC determination, the ALJ is responsible for developing a claimant's complete medical history, including obtaining consultative exams and contacting treatment providers. Id. The regulations instruct the ALJ to consider “any statements about what [the claimant] can still do that have been provided by medical sources, whether or not they are based on formal medical examinations” and “descriptions and observations of [the claimant's] limitations…, including limitations that result from… symptoms, such as pain.” Id. As the regulations indicate, the purpose of the RFC determination is to ascertain what a claimant can do despite those limitations. See Id. at (a)(1). Thus, the ALJ “must specify the functions plaintiff is capable of performing and may not simply make conclusory statement regarding a plaintiff's capacities.” Aiello v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 5:06-CV-1021, 2009 WL 87581, at *3 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 9, 2009) (emphasis in original). When a claimant's medical ...

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