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Lewis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 19, 2018

PAMELA ELLA LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS TO REVERSE AND AFFIRM DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Pamela Ella Lewis asserts that she is disabled and unable to work due to several conditions. She filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a final decision denying her application for social security disability insurance benefits. For the reasons set forth below, I will grant in part Lewis's motion to remand the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #24), and I will deny the Commissioner's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #26).

         Background

         I refer to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #23-1 through Doc. #23-9. Lewis filed an application for social security disability income on January 9, 2014, alleging a disability beginning on January 11, 2013. Doc. #23-6 at 2-3. Her claim was initially denied on March 17, 2014, Doc. #23-5 at 7-12, and denied again upon reconsideration on May 30, 2014. Id. at 19-28. She then filed a request for a hearing on July 7, 2014. Id. at 29-30.

         Lewis appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ronald J. Thomas on February 27, 2016. Doc. #23-3 at 72. She was represented by counsel. Ibid. A vocational expert testified at the hearing. Ibid. On June 24, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Lewis was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Id. at 34. The Appeals Council denied Lewis's request for review on September 12, 2017. Id. at 6. Lewis then filed this federal action on February 2, 2018. Doc. #1.

         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 his 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 his 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 her 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, she has the residual functional capacity to perform her past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform her 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) (alteration in original) (citation omitted); see also20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). In applying this framework, an ALJ may find a claimant to be disabled or not disabled at a particular step and may make a decision without proceeding to the next step. See20 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 Lewis was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. At Step One, the ALJ determined that Lewis last met the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2016. Doc. #23-3 at 19. The ALJ concluded Lewis had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 11, 2013, the date of the alleged onset of her disability, through her date of last insured. Ibid. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Lewis suffered from the following severe impairments: “fibromyalgia, obstructive sleep apnea with shortness of breath, obesity, anxiety and depression.” Ibid. The ALJ also took note of evidence that Lewis also had been evaluated and treated for “gastroesophegal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches and left foot neuropathy, ” but did not find any of those conditions to constitute a severe impairment. Ibid.

         At Step Three, the ALJ determined that Lewis 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 21. The ALJ did determine, however, that Lewis had moderate difficulties “[w]ith regard to concentration, persistence, or pace.” Id. at 23.

         The ALJ found that, through the date of last insured, Lewis “had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)” but that she needs “a work environment free from concentrated exposure to poor ventilation, temperature extremes, fumes, dusts, gases, odors, humidity and wetness.” Id. at 25. The ALJ also found that Lewis “can only occasionally balance, twist, squat, bend, kneel, crawl and climb, and can have occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the general public.” Ibid. At Step Four, the ALJ then concluded that Lewis “is capable of performing past relevant work as an administrative assistant, payroll clerk and graphic designer.” Id. at 32. The ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert in arriving at this conclusion. Ibid.

         The ALJ also made an alternative Step Five finding, where, after considering Lewis's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ concluded that, through the date of last insured, there were jobs that Lewis could perform that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 33. As with the ALJ's Step Four finding, in reaching this conclusion, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational ...


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