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Janangelo v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 19, 2018

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



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Frank Paul Janangelo'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. # 20]. After careful consideration of the arguments of both parties, 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 his DIB application on March 12, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of August 9, 2010. He last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on September 30, 2011.[2] Plaintiff's claim was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On September 6, 2016, a hearing was held before administrative law judge John Noel (“the ALJ”). On October 28, 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 forty-four years old on the date last insured. He has not worked since the alleged onset date. He has past work experience as a computer systems maintenance technician. He has at least a twelfth grade education and is able to communicate in English. At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff alleged he was primarily disabled due to his mental impairments. (R. 35).

         Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Joint Stipulation of Facts filed by the parties. [Doc. # 19-2]. The Court adopts this stipulation and incorporates it 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, at Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date through the date last insured. (R. 14). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments during the relevant period: human immunodeficiency virus; recurrent arrhythmias; and anxiety. (R. 14). In addition, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had other medical impairments that were nonsevere, including irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, anemia, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, gastro esophageal reflux disease, and obesity. (R. 14-15). At Step Three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 15-17). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity[3] during the relevant period:

Plaintiff could perform medium work[4] except he could only frequently climb ramps and stairs; occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He could perform simple, routine tasks; use judgment limited to simple, work-related decisions; have no ...

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