United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS
SARAH A. L. MERRIAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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].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].
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.
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).
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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).
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)).
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).
SSA LEGAL STANDARD
the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a
disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42
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
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
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.
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).
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).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
4. Failing to obtain the testimony of a vocational expert;
5. Failing to give proper consideration to the testimony of
Court will address each of plaintiff's arguments in turn.