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Claudio v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 18, 2018

SOBEIDA CLAUDIO, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          RULING ON THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER

          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of Sobeida Claudio's application for disability insurance benefits. Ms. Claudio contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in: (1) giving little weight to the opinions of several physicians whose reports are contained in the record; (2) failing to consider the effect of all of her medically determinable impairments in formulating her Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”); and (3) concluding that although her impairments prevent her performing her past relevant work, others jobs exist in significant No. in the national economy which the claimant can perform. I agree with Ms. Claudio that the ALJ improperly applied the treating physician rule as to the opinions of one of her treating physicians, and I am unable to conclude that this error was harmless. The case is therefore REMANDED. I do not reach Ms. Claudio's remaining arguments urging reversal or remand.

         I. Background

         On May 23, 2011, Ms. Claudio filed an application for disability benefits for an alleged disability. (ECF No. 19-2 at 2.)[1] A disability adjudicator in the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her application and thereafter denied her request for reconsideration on May 4, 2012. (Id.) On July 30, 2013, Ms. Claudio appeared with counsel before ALJ Deirdre R. Horton, who subsequently denied her benefits. (Id. at 2-3). In February 2015, however, the Appeals Council for the SSA remanded the case back to the ALJ. (Id. at 3.)

         Ms. Claudio then appeared again with counsel before ALJ Horton, who again denied her benefits. (Id.). The ALJ found that Ms. Claudio had the severe impairments of sciatica, mild degenerative joint disease causing right knee pain, obesity, and depression. (ALJ Decision, Tr. at 39.) The ALJ rejected the contention that Ms. Claudio suffered from severe ailments relating to her feet, hearing, hips, symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, or hypertension. (Id. at 40.) Next, the ALJ determined that Ms. Claudio did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment, and had the following Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”):

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can sit for 6 hours; stand and walk 4 hours; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; no climbing of ladders/ropes/scaffolds; occasional balancing; stooping; kneeling; crouching and crawling; she can perform short simply tasks and occasional detailed tasks; she can occasionally interact with the general public.

(Id. at 40, 42.) Finally, the ALJ determined that although Ms. Claudio lacked the ability to perform any past relevant work, there were jobs that “exist[ed] in significant No. in the national economy that [she] can perform . . . .” (Id. at 46-47.) For these reasons, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Claudio was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 48.)

         On May 25, 2017, the appeals council denied Ms. Claudio's request for review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. at 1.) This appeal followed. Specific facts and portions of the ALJ's decision will be discussed below as necessary.

         II. Standard

         The Social Security Act establishes that benefits are payable to individuals who have a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). “The term ‘disability' means . . . [an] inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). To determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ must follow a five-step evaluation process as promulgated by the Commissioner.

         The five steps are as follows: (1) the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which limits his or her mental or physical ability to do basic work activities; (3) if the claimant has a “severe impairment, ” the Commissioner must ask whether, based solely on the medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant has one of these enumerated impairments, the Commissioner will automatically consider that claimant disabled, without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience. Id. (4) if the impairment is not “listed” in the regulations, the Commissioner then asks whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he or she has the residual functional capacity to perform his or her past work; and (5) if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work, the Commissioner then determines whether there is other work the claimant could perform. Id. To be considered disabled, an individual's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot . . . engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Commissioner bears the burden of proof on the fifth step, while the claimant has the burden on the first four steps. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).

         “A district court reviewing a final . . . decision pursuant to . . . 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is performing an appellate function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842, 844 (2d Cir. 1981). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accordingly, a district court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the court's function is to ascertain whether the correct legal principles were applied in reaching the decision, and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). 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). The Second Circuit has defined substantial evidence as “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) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence must be “more than a mere scintilla or a touch of proof here and there in the record.” Id.

         III. Discussion

         A. Treating ...


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