United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS
SARAH A. L. MERRIAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Maria Gonzalez ("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 applications for
Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and
Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Act.
Plaintiff has moved for an order reversing the decision of
the Commissioner, or in the alternative to remand for a new
hearing. [Doc. #24]. Defendant has filed a cross-motion
seeking an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner.
reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion for Order
Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner or in the
Alterative Motion for Remand for a Hearing [Doc. #24]
is DENIED, and defendant's Motion for an Order
Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #26]
filed concurrent applications for DIB and SSI on October 18,
2012, alleging disability beginning July 1, 2012.
See Certified Transcript of the Administrative
Record, Doc. #17, compiled on January 10, 2018, (hereinafter
"Tr.") at 212-27. Plaintiff's applications were
denied initially on June 19, 2013, see Tr. 138-45,
and upon reconsideration on October 18, 2013. See
November 20, 2014, plaintiff, represented by Attorneys Kirk
Lowry and Matthew Bardos, appeared and testified at a hearing
before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") I.K.
Harrington. See Tr. 35-77. Vocational Expert
("VE") Richard Barry Hall testified by telephone at
the hearing. See Tr. 60-61, 72-76, 171-75. On
December 24, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision.
See Tr. 12-34. On June 20, 2017, the Appeals Council
denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the
ALJ's December 24, 2014, 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).
now represented by Attorney Olia Yelner, timely filed this
action for review and moves to reverse the Commissioner's
decision, or in the alternative, to remand for a new hearing.
[Doc. #24]. On appeal, plaintiff argues:
1. The ALJ failed to properly assess plaintiff's
2. The ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinion
3. The ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity
("RFC") determination fails to include all of
See generally Doc. #24-2 at 22-43. As set forth
below, the Court finds that ALJ Harrington did not err as
contended, and that her decision is supported by substantial
evidence of record.
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. 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).
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).
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))
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
SSA LEGAL STANDARD
the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a
disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42
U.S.C. §423(a) (1) .
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.
§§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" (alterations added)).
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 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.
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 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. (quoting
Haberman v. Finch, 418 F.2d 664, 667 (2d Cir.
the above-described five-step evaluation process, the ALJ
concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.
See Tr. 29. At step one, the ALJ found that
plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since the alleged onset date of July 1, 2012. See
Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the
severe impairments of major depressive disorder and
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) . See Tr.
17-18. The ALJ found plaintiff also suffered from the
following non-severe impairments: hypertension; backache;
migraines; cervicalgia; shingles; gout; and obesity.
See Tr. 18-19. The ALJ next determined that
"mental retardation and borderline intellectual
functioning are non-medically determinable impairments."
three, the ALJ found that 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. 19-22. The ALJ
specifically considered Listings 12.04 (affective disorders)
and 12.06 (anxiety related disorder). See Tr. 20-22.
Before moving on to step four, the ALJ found plaintiff had
to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant is
capable of performing simple, routine tasks, involving no
more than simple, short instructions and simple work-related
decisions, with few work places changes. The claimant should
avoid working at fixed production rate pace. She should also
avoid interaction with the general public, but could have
occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors[.]
Tr. 22 (sic). At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff
was unable to perform her past relevant work "as an
adult home care, child care, catering, floor associate and
stocker[.]" Tr. 27 (sic). At step five, and after
considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience
and RFC, as well as the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found
that other jobs existed in significant numbers in the
national economy that plaintiff could perform. See
raises three general arguments in support of reversal or
remand. The Court will address each in turn.
The ALJ's Assessment of Plaintiff's
asserts that the ALJ erred in her assessment of
plaintiff's credibility. See Doc. #24-2 at
22-25. Plaintiff specifically takes issue with the ALJ's
reliance on her lack of mental health treatment and
medication compliance. See Id. Defendant responds
that the ALJ properly assessed plaintiff's statements
concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of
plaintiff's symptoms. See Doc. #26-1 at 14-16.
summarizing plaintiff's testimony, and a "careful
consideration of the evidence," the ALJ found that
plaintiff's "medically determinable impairments
could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[,
]" but that plaintiff's "statements concerning
the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these
symptoms are not entirely credible for reasons explained in
this decision." Tr. 23. In making that determination the
ALJ considered: "the objective clinical evidence and
treatment notes"; the type of medical treatment
plaintiff received; plaintiff's non-compliance with her
treatment and medication regimens; plaintiff's failure to
follow-up on her doctors' recommendations;