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Camille v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 27, 2018

QUETLISE CAMILLE
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting COMMISSIONER, Social Security ADMINISTRATION

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS

          HON. SARAH A. L. MERRIAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Quetlise Camille (“plaintiff”), brings this appeal under §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 Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner” or “defendant”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) for the period of January 1, 2012, through September 11, 2015. Plaintiff has moved for an order reversing that portion of the Commissioner's decision denying her benefits, or in the alternative to remand for a rehearing. [Doc. #22]. Defendant has filed a cross-motion seeking an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner. [Doc. #24].

         For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion for Order Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner or in the Alterative Motion for Remand for a Rehearing [Doc. #22] is DENIED, and defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #24] is GRANTED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on May 29, 2013, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2012. See Certified Transcript of the Administrative Record, Doc. #18, compiled on September 22, 2017, (hereinafter “Tr.”) at 533-41. Plaintiff's application was denied initially on November 20, 2013, see Tr. 476-79, and upon reconsideration on June 2, 2014. See Tr. 481-83.

         On November 4, 2015, plaintiff, represented by Attorney Olia Yelner, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Robert A. DiBiccaro. See Tr. 41-84. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Jack Bock testified at the administrative hearing by telephone. See Tr. 69-81; see also Tr. 599-603. On January 28, 2016, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding that plaintiff became disabled within the meaning of the law as of September 12, 2015. See Tr. 19-40. On May 31, 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's January 28, 2016, 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 timely filed this action for review and now moves to reverse the Commissioner's decision, or alternatively, to remand for a rehearing. [Doc. #22]. On appeal, plaintiff argues:

1. The ALJ erred at step three of the sequential evaluation;
2. The ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinion evidence;
3. The ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) determination fails to include all of plaintiff's impairments; and
4. The ALJ's step five determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

See generally Doc. #22-1 at 20-37. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that ALJ DiBiccaro did not err as contended and his decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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. Second, the Court must decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence. See Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). 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) (citation omitted).

         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.” (citing Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999))). “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 her 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) (alterations added) (citing Treadwell v. Schweiker, 698 F.2d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1983)). 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) (citing Carroll v. Sec. Health and Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 643 (2d Cir. 1983)). “Moreover, when a finding is potentially dispositive on the issue of disability, there must be enough discussion to enable a reviewing court to determine whether substantial evidence exists to support that finding.” Johnston v. Colvin, No. 3:13CV00073(JCH), 2014 WL 1304715, at *6 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (citing Peoples v. Shalala, No. 92CV4113, 1994 WL 621922, at *4 (N.D.Ill. Nov. 4, 1994)).

         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) (quoting Lamay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 507 (2d Cir. 2009)). “[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) (citations omitted)

         III. SSA LEGAL STANDARD

         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 he 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.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. §416.920(c) (requiring that the impairment “significantly limit[] ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” to be considered “severe” (alterations added)).[2]

         There is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §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 he is not, the Secretary next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which significantly limits his 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, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his 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.

Id.

         “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) (alteration added) (citing 68 Fed. Reg. 51155 (Aug. 26, 2003)); Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam)). The RFC is what a person is still capable of doing despite limitations resulting from his physical and mental impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §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. (quoting Haberman v. Finch, 418 F.2d 664, 667 (2d Cir. 1969)).

         IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Following the above-described five-step evaluation process, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff “was not disabled prior to September 12, 2015, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date” of his decision. Tr. 36. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of January 1, 2012. See Tr. 26. At step two, the ALJ found: “Since the alleged onset date of disability, January 1, 2012, the claimant had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease, L5-S1 radiculopathy and depressive disorder[.]” Id. The ALJ found plaintiff's anemia, hypertension, fibroid uterus and hemorrhagic ovarian cyst to be non-severe impairments. See id.

         At step three, the ALJ found that since January 1, 2012, plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. See Tr. 26-28. The ALJ specifically considered Listings 1.04 (disorders of the spine) and 12.04 (affective disorders) in making that determination. See Id. Before moving on to step four, the ALJ found that since January 1, 2012, plaintiff had the RFC

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except: She is able to perform occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, crawling, crouching and kneeling with no pushing or pulling with the right lower extremity. She requires a hand-held assistive device for ambulation and must change positions every 30 to 60 minutes. The job should require less than 30 days to learn, and involve only simple instructions and routine, repetitive tasks with occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the public.

Tr. 29. At step four, the ALJ concluded that since January 1, 2012, plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. See Tr. 34. The ALJ found: “Prior to the established disability onset date, the claimant was a younger individual age 45-49. On September 12, 2015, the claimant's age category changed to an individual closely approaching advanced age.” Id. At step five, the ALJ found that prior to September 12, 2015, and after considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, as well the testimony of the VE, other jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. See Tr. 34-35. The ALJ then determined: “Beginning on September 12, 2015, the date the claimant's age category changed, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform (20 CFR 416.960(c) and 416.966).” Tr. 35.

         V. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff raises several arguments in support of reversal or remand. The Court addresses each in turn.

         A. Step Three

         Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred at step three of the sequential evaluation. See generally Doc. #22-1 at 20-26. Plaintiff asserts: “The medical records contain descriptions of all of the clinical signs and symptoms necessary to meet or to be equivalent to the Listing of Section 1.04(A) and 1.04(C).” Id. at 20 (footnotes omitted).[3] Over six pages of her brief, plaintiff lists the evidence of record that allegedly supports that contention. See Id. at 21-26. Defendant responds that the ALJ properly concluded that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing 1.04. See generally Doc. #24-1 at 3-5.

Listing 1.04 addresses disorders of the spine:
Disorders of the spine (e.g., herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet arthritis, vertebral fracture), resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord. With:
A. Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the ...

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