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Rodriguez v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 4, 2018

SUNIDA RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Defendant.

          RULING ON PENDING MOTIONS

          Donna F. Martinez United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Sunida Rodriguez, seeks judicial review of the denial of her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”).[1] (R. 9-23.)

         I. Background

         An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on May 28, 2014, and determined that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. 9-23.) The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims.[2] The ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had no substantial gainful employment since her alleged onset date. (R. 14.) At step two, he found that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; radiculopathy; and varicose veins. (R. 15.) He found at step three that these impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. (R. 31.) He determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following additional limitations: must be allowed to alternate between sitting and standing at one-hour intervals during the workday, but the positional change will not render the claimant off task; occasionally climb ramps or stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and occasionally balance, crawl, stoop, kneel and crouch.” (R. 17.) At step four, he determined that plaintiff is able to perform her “past relevant work as a packer. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity.” (R. 20.) In the alternative, at step five, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that other jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform. (R. 21.)

         On October 14, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision. (R. 1-6.) The Appeals Council stated that plaintiff had submitted a new Medical Source Statement from her treating physician, Donna M. McHugh, M.C. dated July 2, 2014 (R. 797-800), that “did meet the criteria for consideration” by the Appeals Council, but found that “this information does not provide a basis for changing the Administrative Law Judge's decision.” (R. 2.) Plaintiff timely appealed.

         Currently pending are plaintiff's motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #21) and defendant's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #22). For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner (doc. #21) is GRANTED and defendant's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (doc. #22) is DENIED.[3]

         II. Legal Standard

         “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). Further, 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).

         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)). Substantial evidence must be “more than a scintilla or touch of proof here and there in the record.” Williams, 859 F.2d at 258.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues that the Appeals Council and the ALJ failed to follow the treating physician rule by assigning less than controlling weight to the opinions of her primary care physician, Dr. Donna McHugh.[4] She also argues that the ALJ should have given greater weight to the opinions of examining physician Charles Raftery, M.D. (R. 464-467) and a functional capacity evaluation by physical therapist Michael Dane (R. 476-488) than to the opinions of the non-examining state agency physicians. Defendant responds that substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision can be found in the non-examining state agency physician reports.

         A. The Appeals Council decision

         With regard to new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council, the Second Circuit held that:

“[N]ew evidence submitted to the 6Appeals Council following the ALJ's decision becomes part of the administrative record for judicial review when the Appeals Council denies review of the ALJ's decision.” Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 45 (2d Cir.1996). “The only limitations stated in [20 C.F.R. §§ 404.970(b) and 416.1470(b)] are that the evidence must be new and material and that it must relate to the period on or before the ALJ's decision.” Id. . . . Once evidence is added to the record, the Appeals Council must then consider the entire record, including the new evidence, and review a case if the “administrative law judge's action, findings, or conclusion is contrary to the weight of the evidence currently of record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.970(b). If the Appeals Council denies review of a case, the ALJ's decision, and not the Appeals Council's, is the final agency decision. See Perez, 77 F.3d at 44. Because the Appeals Council denied review in this case, our review focuses on the ALJ's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner ..., may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action....” (emphasis added)) When reviewing the Commissioner's decision, we bear in mind that the ultimate determination of whether a person has a disability within the ...

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