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Wright v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 21, 2018



          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Pamela Wright alleges that she is disabled and cannot work principally because of severe pain stemming from conditions in her back, left knee, and left arm and hand. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), she seeks review of the final decision of defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for social security disability and supplemental security income. On September 14, 2017, plaintiff filed a motion to reverse or remand the decision of the Commissioner. Doc. #16. Thereafter, the Court declared a default against the Commissioner for her willful failure to comply with the Court's scheduling order and rules. Doc. #21. For the reasons stated below, I will now grant plaintiff's motion to remand.


         The Court refers to the administrative record provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #14-1 through Doc. #14-11. Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on January 14, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of October 2, 2012. Plaintiff's claims were denied on July 28, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on September 16, 2014. Plaintiff then filed a written demand for a hearing.

         Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Sharda Singh on September 23, 2015. Plaintiff was represented by counsel. Vocational Expert Dr. Courtney Olds testified at the hearing. On November 25, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Doc. # 14-3 at 37-36. After the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff filed this federal action.

         To qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, ” and “the impairment must be ‘of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his 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.'” Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d 42, 45 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 423(d)(2)(A)). “[W]ork exists in the national economy when it exists in significant numbers either in the region where [a claimant] live[s] or in several other regions of the country, ” and “when there is a significant number of jobs (in one or more occupations) having requirements which [a claimant] [is] able to meet with [her] physical or mental abilities and vocational qualifications.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.966(a)-(b); see also Kennedy v. Astrue, 343 Fed.Appx. 719, 722 (2d Cir. 2009).

         To evaluate a claimant's disability, and to determine whether she qualifies for benefits, the agency engages in the following five-step process:

First, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Where the claimant is not, the Commissioner next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” that 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 that is listed [in the so-called “Listings”] ¶ 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. If the claimant has a listed impairment, the Commissioner will consider the claimant disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Commissioner presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a listed impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. 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 burden then shifts to the Commissioner to determine whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122-23 (2d Cir. 2012) (alterations in original; citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). In applying this framework, an ALJ can find a claimant to be disabled or not disabled at a particular step and can make a decision without proceeding to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proving the case at steps one through four; at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that there is other work that the claimant can perform. See McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since October 2, 2012, the date of alleged onset of disability. Doc. #14-3 at 29. At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments during the relevant period: lumbar radiculopathy, left knee derangement, status post left knee arthroscopy and obesity. Ibid. The ALJ further concluded that plaintiff suffered from the following non-sever impairments: hypertension, mild cervical radiculopathy, left carpal tunnel, sleep apnea, status post endovenous radiofrequency obliteration of the greater saphenous vein, and anxiety. Id. at 30.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 25. Specifically, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's left knee derangement and status post arthroscopy did not meet listing 1.02, which pertains to major dysfunction of a joint. Id. at 31. The ALJ found that plaintiff neither established that she was unable to ambulate effectively, nor established that she was unable to perform fine and gross movements effectively. Id. at 32. The ALJ also concluded that plaintiff's radiculopathy did not meet the criteria for listing 1.04. Ibid.

         The ALJ then found that plaintiff had “the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), ” with the following limitations: plaintiff “can never climb ladders ropes, or scaffolds. She is limited to occasional ramps, stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling. She is limited to frequent left upper extremity fine and gross manipulations. She is to avoid all exposure to workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights and moving machinery.” Ibid.

         In formulating this residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ accorded limited weight to the opinions of plaintiff's treating physician Richard Matza, M.D., that were rendered on June 8, 2015, and October 13, 2015. The ALJ accorded “some weight” to the opinion of Dr. Matza rendered on April 23, 2015, because he was her treating physician. Id. at 35. The ALJ discounted Dr. Matza's opinion to the extent that she did because the opinion was in the form of a checklist and plaintiff's limitations were not documented in the notes that accompanied the physician's opinion. Id. at 34-35 In that opinion, Dr. Matza indicated that plaintiff needed to alternate positions once an hour and that her impairments interfered with her ability to complete activities. He further opined that plaintiff was unable to walk a block at a reasonable pace on rough or uneven surfaces. Id. at 35; Doc. #14-9 at 52.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as representative/loan clerk. Doc. #14-3 at 35. The ALJ found that the mental and physical demands of this work were compatible with plaintiff's RFC, and the ALJ relied on the vocational expert's testimony in making this finding. Ibid. Having concluded that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work, the ALJ did not make any finding at step five concerning ...

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