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Mattioli v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 1, 2018

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



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Antonina Mattioli's, application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). 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 her case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 17]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision. [Doc. # 23]. After careful consideration of the arguments both parties presented, 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).


         Plaintiff filed her DIB and SSI applications on June 20, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2011. With respect to the DIB claim, she last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2011.[2] Plaintiff's claim was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On September 4, 2012, a hearing was held before administrative law judge Ronald J. Thomas (“the ALJ”). On September 21, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff then sought review with the Appeals Council. After the Appeals Council denied review, Plaintiff appealed to the District of Connecticut. On September 16, 2015, the district court remanded the matter to the ALJ to evaluate the significance of Plaintiff's non-exertional limitations, and, if necessary, to obtain vocational testimony as to Plaintiff's ability to find work that exists in the national economy. See Mattioli v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 14-cv-182(JAM) (Doc. # 25), (D. Conn. Aug. 11, 2015).

         The ALJ held a subsequent hearing on March 27, 2017. On June 19, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff again sought review with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's 2017 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         The ALJ's 2017 decision follows the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims.[3] At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 576). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; diabetes; hypothyroidism; bilateral shoulder tears, status post surgery; arthralgia; and sleep apnea. (R. 576). 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. 576-78). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity[4] during the relevant period:

Plaintiff could perform medium work[5] except she can occasionally interact with the public, supervisors, and coworkers; she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and she can occasionally reach overhead with the right dominant master arm.

(R. 597-82). At Step Four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was able to perform her past work as a housekeeper. (R. 582). Finally, the ALJ made an alternative determination that, at Step Five, there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (R. 583). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled.

         Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Joint Stipulation of Facts filed by the parties. [Doc. # 17-3]. The Court adopts the stipulation and incorporates it by reference herein.


         Several regulations and governing Social Security Rulings were amended during the pendency of the case. “These new rules generally apply to claims filed either on or after January 17, 2017 or March 27, 2017, depending on the regulation.” Cobb v. Berryhill, No. 4:17-CV-00106-A, 2017 WL 6492078, at *4 n. 2 (N.D. Tex. Nov. 29, 2017), report and recommendation adopted, No. 4:17-CV-106-A, 2017 WL 6493237 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 15, 2017) (citing 81 Fed. Reg. 66138-01, 2016 WL 5341732 (F.R. Sept. 26, 2016)). District courts are “generally to apply those rules that were in effect at the time the ALJ issued [the] decision.” Id. (citing 81 Fed. Reg. 66138-01, fn.1 (“We expect that Federal courts will review our final decisions using the rules that were in effect at the time we issued the decisions.”)).

         Among the amended regulations and Rulings are those applicable to evaluation of the severity of mental impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a. This evaluation requires “application of a ‘special technique' at the second and third steps of the five-step framework, and at each level of administrative review.” Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). The special technique obliges the reviewer to first determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(b)(1). If the claimant is found to have such an impairment, the reviewer must then “rate the degree of functional limitation resulting from the impairment(s) in accordance with paragraph (c).” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(b)(2). Paragraph (c) specifies four broad ...

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