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Goncalves v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 20, 2018

DOMINGOS JOHN GONCALVES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          RULING RE: MOTION TO REMAND/REVERSE THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION (DOC. NO. 18) & MOTION FOR AN ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DOC. NO. 22)

          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Domingos John Goncalves (“Goncalves”) brings this appeal under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code from the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), which denied his application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income benefits. See Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. No. 1). On this appeal, Goncalves challenges only the denial of supplemental security income benefits, not the denial of disability insurance benefits. See Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of Remand/Reversal (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 18-2) at 8-9. Goncalves seeks remand of the Decision rendered by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ronald J. Thomas, which Decision affirmed the Commissioner's denial. See Plaintiff's Motion to Remand/Reverse the Commissioner's Decision (“Mot. to Remand”) (Doc. No. 18). The Commissioner cross-moves for an order affirming that Decision. See Defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner (“Mot. to Affirm”) (Doc. No. 22).

         For the reasons set forth below, Goncalves's Motion to Remand/Reverse the Commissioner's Decision is granted. The Commissioner's Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner is denied.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Goncalves applied for disability and supplemental security income benefits on January 29, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of November 15, 2011. See Stipulated Facts (Doc. No. 18-1) at 1. The Commissioner denied Goncalves's application initially, and again upon reconsideration. See id. Goncalves requested a hearing with an ALJ, which was held before ALJ Thomas on August 21, 2015. See Id. A supplemental hearing was later held on March 4, 2016. See id.

         On May 27, 2016, ALJ Thomas issued an unfavorable decision for Goncalves (the “Decision”), affirming the Commissioner's denial and finding that Goncalves was not disabled. See id. In making this Decision, the ALJ followed the SSA's five-step evaluative process for determining whether an individual is disabled. See Certified Transcript of Record (“R.”) (Doc. Nos. 15-1 - 15-10) at 11-12. Specifically, at step two, ALJ Thomas found that Goncalves had severe impairments in the form of degenerative disc disease, mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, learning disability, major depressive disorder, and substance abuse. Id. at 13. At step three, the ALJ determined that Goncalves did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled the severity of any listed impairment. Id. at 14. Next, the ALJ determined that Goncalves had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following additional limitations: (1) he could perform occasional bending, twisting, climbing, balancing, crawling, squatting, and kneeling; (2) he required an environment free from concentrated exposure to poor ventilation, temperature extremes, odors, wetness, humidity, dust, fumes, and gases; (3) he was capable of performing simple, repetitive, routine tasks that do not require teamwork or working closely with the public and that involve only occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public. Id. at 18. At step four, the ALJ determined that Goncalves could not perform his past relevant work as a construction laborer. Id. at 25.

         At step five, however, the ALJ found that Goncalves was not disabled because he could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 26-27. In making this determination, the ALJ first found that, if Goncalves had the RFC to perform the full range of light work, the Medical Vocational Rules, commonly known as “the Grids, ” would direct a finding of “not disabled” based on Goncalves's age, education, and work experience. Id. at 26. However, because the ALJ had determined that Goncalves's RFC included additional limitations that prevented him from performing the full range of light work, the ALJ proceeded to solicit testimony from a vocational expert on the availability of jobs in the national economy for an individual with Goncalves's vocational work profile. Id. On the basis of the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Goncalves was capable of performing work that was available in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 27.

         Goncalves requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on September 7, 2017. See Stipulated Facts ¶ 3. Following that denial, ALJ Thomas's Decision became a final decision reviewable by this court. Goncalves then filed this appeal on November 1, 2017. See generally Compl. In his appeal, Goncalves challenges only the Commissioner's denial of supplemental security income benefits, not the denial of disability insurance benefits. See Pl.'s Mem. at 8-9.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code, it is not a function of the district court to review de novo the ALJ's decision as to whether the claimant was disabled. See Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998). Instead, the court may only set aside an ALJ's determination as to social security disability if the decision “is based upon legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). While substantial evidence requires “more than a mere scintilla, ” it is a “very deferential standard of review” that only requires “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 447-48 (2d Cir. 2012) (emphasis in original). If the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, those findings are conclusive, and the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2016); see also Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Goncalves raises a single issue on appeal, namely, whether the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider Goncalves's age when conducting step five of the disability analysis. See Pl.'s Mem. at 5-7. Specifically, Goncalves notes that the ALJ classified him as “a person closely approaching advanced age” (age 50-54), without acknowledging or discussing the fact that, on the date of the ALJ's Decision, Goncalves was less than five months away from becoming “a person of advanced age” (age 55 or older). See id. at 8. In light of this “borderline age situation, ” Goncalves argues, the ALJ was required by law to consider whether Goncalves's circumstances warranted moving him into the older age category for the purposes of determining whether Goncalves could perform work available in the national economy. See id. at 10. Accordingly, Goncalves claims that remand is required because the ALJ failed to discuss his borderline age situation. See id. at 12.

         The Commissioner acknowledges that the ALJ's Decision does not expressly discuss the issue of borderline age. See Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Affirming the Commissioner's Decision (“Def.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 22-1) at 7. However, the Commissioner argues that such a discussion was not required because Goncalves was more than “a few months” away from the next oldest age category, and therefore did not qualify as a borderline age situation. See id. at 5. The Commissioner also argues that, even if Goncalves's ...


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