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Turcotte v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 21, 2018



          Jeffrey Alker Meyer, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Todd Turcotte asserts that he is disabled and has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying Turcotte's disability claim. For the reasons discussed below, I will deny Turcotte's motion to remand the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #23), and grant the Commissioner's motion to affirm (Doc. #24).


         The Court refers to transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #15-1 through Doc. #15-13. Turcotte filed an application for social security insurance on October 1, 2014, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2014. Doc. #15-4 at 3-4. Turcotte was 49 years old at the time of his application. Id. at 3. He left school in the eighth grade and does not have a GED. Turcotte was self-employed as a carpenter in residential construction from 2010 to 2013. He was not working when he filed his initial claim for disability. Id. at 4.

         Turcotte's current claim for supplemental security income was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 14, 31. He then appeared and testified before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Alexander Borre on March 7, 2017. Doc. #15-3 at 47. Turcotte was represented before the ALJ by an attorney representative. Ibid. A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. Ibid. On April 5, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision holding that Turcotte was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 19-36. Turcotte applied to the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision and submitted additional evidence from March 22, 2017, through March 29, 2017, to support his claim for disability with his application. Id. at 10-18. The Appeals Council did not consider the additional evidence because it “[did] not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision.” Id. at 3. The Appeals Council denied Turcotte's request for review on July 7, 2017, and he then filed this federal action. Id. at 8-9.

         To qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that he 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 he 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 [his] 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, [he] has the residual functional capacity to perform [his] past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform [his] 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 also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). In applying this framework, an ALJ can find a claimant to be disabled or not disabled at a particular step and can make a decision without proceeding to the next step. See 20 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 here concluded that Turcotte was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ determined that Turcotte had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2014. Doc. #15-3 at 24. At step two, the ALJ found that Turcotte suffers from the following severe impairments: hepatitis C, left shoulder tear, left knee osteoarthritis, degenerative disk disease, depressive, bipolar and related disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Ibid. The ALJ determined two of Turcotte's other impairments to be non-severe impairments, including carpal tunnel syndrome and peripheral neuropathy. Ibid.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Turcotte did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 25.

         At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§] 416.967(b), ” but with the following limitations: Turcotte “can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds. [Turcotte] cannot tolerate exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights or open, moving machinery. He can frequently balance and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.” Id. at 28. In addition, Turcotte “is limited to simple and repetitive tasks in an environment with no strict time or production requirements [and] he can occasionally interact with the public.” Ibid. The ALJ further determined that Turcotte “can have no exposure to dust, gas, fumes and other environmental irritants[, and he] can do frequent fingering and handling bilaterally and can occasionally reach overhead with his left upper non-dominant extremity.” Ibid.

         In formulating this residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ gave “partial weight” to the medical opinions of all four state agency medical consultants, while giving “little weight” to the medical opinion of both of Turcotte's mental health evaluators and one of Turcotte's health record evaluators. Id. at 34. The ALJ also found Turcotte's testimony about his symptoms to be only partially credible. Specifically, the ALJ found that “[m]edical evidence reflects the stabilization of [Turcotte's] symptoms with treatment, and supports an ability to work within the residual functional capacity” articulated by the ALJ. Id. at 29. In addition, the ALJ found that “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” Ibid.

         At step five, after considering Turcotte's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that jobs that Turcotte can perform exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 33. This finding relied on the testimony of vocational expert Hank Lerner, who testified at the administrative hearing that an individual with plaintiff's RFC and limitations (as determined by the ALJ) could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as pre-assembler printed circuit board, production assembler, and compression molding ...

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