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Young v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 12, 2018




         The plaintiff, Debra Lynn Young, brings this appeal pursuant to §205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff has moved for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner, or in the alternative, for remand. [Doc. #14]. Plaintiff filed a memorandum of law in support of her motion. [Doc. #15]. Defendant has filed a motion for an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner. [Doc. #19].[1]Defendant filed a memorandum of law in support of its motion. [Doc. #20]. Plaintiff declined to file a reply. [Doc. #21]. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Commissioner's Decision is GRANTED. [Doc. #19]. Plaintiff's Motion for Reversal or Remand of Commissioner's Decision is DENIED. [Doc. #14].


         Plaintiff filed concurrent applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning on December 31, 2010. See Certified Transcript of the Administrative Record, compiled on March 31, 2016 (hereinafter “Tr.”) 188-203. With respect to plaintiff's claim for DIB, plaintiff's date last insured was September 30, 2012. See Tr. 16; Doc. #17 at 2. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on January 6, 2014, see Tr. 138-145, and upon reconsideration on June 2, 2014, see Tr. 149-155. Plaintiff was self-represented throughout that process.

         On May 14, 2015, plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Deirdre R. Horton. See Tr. 30-85. Plaintiff was not represented by counsel at the hearing. See Tr. 32. Plaintiff's sister, Heather Halem, also appeared and testified at the hearing. See Tr. 31-32, 75-86. On December 10, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from December 31, 2010, through the date of this decision[.]” Tr. 25. Attorney Robert S. Reger appeared on behalf of plaintiff on January 27, 2016. See Tr. 11-12. Plaintiff, through Attorney Reger, filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order, see Tr. 9, and a memorandum in support, see Tr. 257-260. On April 25, 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's December 10, 2015, decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See Tr. 1-6. The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         Plaintiff, represented by Attorney Reger, filed this timely action for review and now moves to reverse and/or remand the Commissioner's decision. On appeal, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ made various errors that prevented her from receiving a full and fair hearing.


         The review of a Social Security disability determination involves two levels of inquiry. First, the court must decide whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in making the determination. See Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). Second, the court must decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence. See Id. Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it is more than a “mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The reviewing court's responsibility is to ensure that a claim has been fairly evaluated by the ALJ. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983).

         The Court does not reach the second stage of review -evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion - if the Court determines that the ALJ failed to apply the law correctly. See Norman v. Astrue, 912 F.Supp.2d 33, 70 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (“The Court first reviews the Commissioner's decision for compliance with the correct legal standards; only then does it determine whether the Commissioner's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.”). “Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have [his] disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.” Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987).

         “[T]he crucial factors in any determination must be set forth with sufficient specificity to enable [a reviewing court] to decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence.” Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984). The ALJ is free to accept or reject the testimony of any witness, but a “finding that the witness is not credible must nevertheless be set forth with sufficient specificity to permit intelligible plenary review of the record.” Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 260-61 (2d Cir. 1988). It is well established that “an ALJ's credibility determination is generally entitled to deference on appeal.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 420 (2d Cir. 2013); see also Kessler v. Colvin, 48 F.Supp.3d 578, 595 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (“A federal court must afford great deference to the ALJ's credibility finding, since the ALJ had the opportunity to observe the claimant's demeanor while the claimant was testifying.” (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)); Pietrunti v. Dir., Office of Workers' Comp. Programs, 119 F.3d 1035, 1042 (2d Cir. 1997) (“Credibility findings of an ALJ are entitled to great deference and therefore can be reversed only if they are patently unreasonable.” (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

         It is important to note that in reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court's role is not to start from scratch. “In reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited to determining whether the SSA's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a correct legal standard.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012). “[W]hether there is substantial evidence supporting the appellant's view is not the question here; rather, we must decide whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.” Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013).


         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1).

         To be considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to benefits, plaintiff must demonstrate that she is unable to work after a date specified “by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). Such impairment or impairments must be “of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(c), 416.920(c) (requiring that the impairment “significantly limit[] ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[]” to be considered “severe”).[3]

         There is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920. In the Second Circuit, the test is described as follows:

First, the Secretary considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If [she] is not, the Secretary next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which 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 which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Secretary will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Secretary presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a “listed” impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam). If and only if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the Commissioner engages in the fourth and fifth steps:

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 Secretary then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform. Under the cases previously discussed, the claimant bears the burden of proof as to the first four steps, while the Secretary must prove the final one.


         “Through the fourth step, the claimant carries the burdens of production and persuasion, but if the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, there is a limited shift in the burden of proof and the Commissioner is obligated to demonstrate that jobs exist in the national or local economies that the claimant can perform given [her] residual functional capacity.” Gonzalez ex rel. Guzman v. Dep't of Health and Human Serv., 360 Fed.Appx. 240, 243 (2d Cir. 2010) (citing 68 Fed. Reg. 51155 (Aug. 26, 2003)); Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam)). “Residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) is what a person is still capable of doing despite limitations resulting from her physical and mental impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1545(a) (1), 416.945(a)(1).

         “In assessing disability, factors to be considered are (1) the objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses or medical opinions based on such facts; (3) subjective evidence of pain or disability testified to by the claimant or others; and (4) the claimant's educational background, age, and work experience.” Bastien v. Califano, 572 F.2d 908, 912 (2d Cir. 1978). “[E]ligibility for benefits is to be determined in light of the fact that the Social Security Act is a remedial statute to be broadly construed and liberally applied.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).


         Following the above-described five-step evaluation process, ALJ Horton concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. See Tr. 25. First, the ALJ determined that plaintiff “meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2012.” Tr. 18. The ALJ then turned to Step One of the evaluation process and found that plaintiff had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2010, the alleged onset date[.] ” Id.

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had two severe impairments, “anxiety and a non-specified affective disorder[.]” Id. The ALJ considered plaintiff's “history of poly-substance abuse[, ]” “brief and sporadic treatment for wrist, knee and back pain[, ]” and alleged Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), but found they were not severe impairments. Tr. 18-19.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1[.]” Tr. 20. Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff's “mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.06.” Id.

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined plaintiff's RFC. The ALJ performed an analysis of the record in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. §§404.1529, 416.929 and Social Security Rulings (“SSRs”) 96-4p and 96-7p. See Tr. 20. The ALJ also “considered opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1527 and 416.927 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p, and 06-3p.” Id. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks. She cannot work with the general public. She can relate appropriately with coworkers, but is limited to frequent direct interaction with her coworkers.” Id.

         With these limitations, the ALJ found at Step Four that plaintiff was “unable to perform any past relevant work[.]” Tr. 24. Proceeding to Step Five, however, the ALJ found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the [plaintiff] can perform[.]” Tr. 25.

         Therefore, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act “from October 31, 2010, through the date of this decision[.]” Id.

         V. DISCUSSION

         On appeal, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in five respects, specifically by:

1. Failing to give proper weight to the opinion of plaintiff's treating APRN;
2. Failing to give proper weight to the opinion of the consultative psychological examiner;
3. Failing to consider whether plaintiff met or equaled Listing 12.05(C);
4. Failing to obtain the testimony of a vocational expert; and
5. Failing to give proper consideration to the testimony of plaintiff's sister.

         The Court will address each of plaintiff's arguments in turn.

         A. ...

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