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Bromell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 20, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Patrick Jerome Bromell's, application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). It is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1] Plaintiff now moves for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”), or in the alternative, an order remanding his case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 19]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision. [Doc. # 21]. After careful consideration of the arguments raised by both sides, and thorough review of the administrative record, the matter is remanded for additional proceedings.


         “A district court reviewing a final . . . decision [of the Commissioner of Social Security] pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is performing an appellate function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842 (2d Cir. 1981). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, [are] conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accordingly, the district court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. Id.; Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the court's function is to first ascertain whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in reaching her conclusion, and then whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). Therefore, absent legal error, a decision of the Commissioner cannot be set aside if it is supported by substantial evidence. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). Substantial evidence is “‘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) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It must be “more than a scintilla or touch of proof here and there in the record.” Williams, 859 F.2d at 258. 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).


         a. Facts

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on May 20, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of October 14, 2013. His claim was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On December 21, 2015, a hearing was held before administrative law judge Eskunder Boyd (“the ALJ”). On January 25, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff then sought review with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was fifty years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 38). He has a high school education. (R. 39). He last worked in January 2013 as a tractor trailer driver. (R. 40). He suffered a stroke in February, 2014, and experienced residual effects including weakness and numbness on the right side of the body, particularly in the right hand and arm, and some cognitive problems. (T. 36). Plaintiff is right handed. (R. 39).

         Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Statement of Facts filed by each side. [Doc. # # 19-1, 21-2]. The Court adopts the facts as set forth collectively and incorporates these Statements by reference herein.

         b. The ALJ's Decision

         The Commissioner must follow a sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims. The five steps of this process 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 which “meets or equals” an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations (the Listings). If so, and it meets the durational requirements, the Commissioner will consider him or her disabled, without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; (4) if not, 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 in the national economy which the claimant can perform. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (a)(4)(i)-(v). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, while the Commissioner bears the burden of proof on the final step. McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 149 (2d Cir. 2014).

         In this case, the ALJ divided Plaintiff's claim into three different time periods: from the alleged onset date of October 14, 2013 through January 31, 2014; from February 1, 2014 through February 10, 2015; and from February 11, 2015 through the date of the hearing.

         For the first time period, the ALJ found, at Step One, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. (R. 15). At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's cardiomyopathy[2] was a severe impairment. (R. 15). The ALJ found, at Step Three, that this impairment did not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 15-16). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity[3] prior to February 1, 2014:

Plaintiff could perform light work except he could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climb stairs or ramps; occasionally balance; occasionally stoop or crouch; never kneel or crawl; occasionally reach overhead; frequently handle or finger with the right hand but no limits with the left hand; and no exposure to extreme cold in the work environment. He could perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks; sustain ...

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