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Atkinson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 26, 2018

BRENDA SMITH ATKINSON Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL ACTING COMMISIONER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE: PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE [ECF 19] AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM [ECF 23]

          Kari A. Dooley United States District Judge

         Preliminary Statement

         Plaintiff Brenda Smith Atkinson brings this appeal pursuant to Title 42, U.S.C. §405(g). She appeals the defendant Commissioner's decision denying her disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”) based upon a finding that she is not “disabled” under the Act. She seeks an order of this court reversing the Commissioner's decision on the ground that the Commissioner's findings are not supported by substantial evidence in the record. The Commissioner, on the other hand, avers that the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and asks this court to affirm the decision. For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiff's motion is DENIED. The defendant Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         The plaintiff sought a determination that she was disabled as of November 30, 2013, the purported date of onset, through the date of the hearing. A person is “disabled” under the Act if that person is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). A physical or mental impairment is one that “results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3). In addition, a claimant must establish that her “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . ” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Commissioner has established a five step sequential analysis to which an ALJ must adhere when evaluating disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. 404.1520. In brief, the five steps are as follows: (1) the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, [1] the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which limits his or her mental or physical ability to do basic work activities; (3) if such a “severe impairment” is established, the Commissioner next determines whether the medical evidence establishes that the claimant's impairment “meets or equals” an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations; (4) if the claimant does not establish the “meets or equals” requirement, the Commissioner must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (hereinafter “RFC”) to perform his or her past work; (5) if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work, the Commissioner must next determine 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 with respect to steps one through four. See Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008). The Commissioner bears the burden as to step five, the existence of work in the national economy which the claimant is capable of performing. McIntyre v Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         It is well-settled that the district court will reverse an ALJ's decision only when it is based upon legal error or when it is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Beauvoir v. Chater, 104 F.3d 1432, 1433 (2d Cir. 1997); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ”). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotations omitted). The court does not inquire as to whether the record might also support the plaintiff's claims, but only whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. See Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013). The potential for drawing more than one conclusion from the record does not preclude a finding that the agency's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Vance v. Berryhill, 860 F.3d 1114, 1120 (8th Cir. 2017). Once an ALJ finds facts, the court can reject those facts “only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise.” Brault v. Social Sec. Admin. 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012). In sum, “if there is substantial evidence to support the [agency's] determination, it must be upheld.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013).

         The ALJ's Decision

         At step one, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the claimed onset date, November 30, 2013. At step two, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had severe impairments, specifically, chronic low back and neck pain as well as a non-specified depressive disorder. The ALJ rejected a claimed impairment to the left thumb, citing successful treatment for the same in April 2013 and no reference to the injury in any medical records thereafter.[2] At step three, the ALJ found that the plaintiff did not establish an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the listed impairments in the regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.[3] At step four, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had an RFC “to perform medium work” as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(c). The ALJ placed limitations on this determination, however, finding that the plaintiff was limited to simple routine tasks; should not work with the general public, and while she was able to work with others, the plaintiff should not do work that required frequent or extensive collaboration. The ALJ further limited the plaintiff to occasional overhead reaching and found that the plaintiff would work best in routines that rarely change. In light of these findings, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff was “unable to perform any past relevant work.” At step five, the ALJ, crediting the testimony of the vocational expert, determined that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the plaintiff could perform. The ALJ therefore concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled as of November 30, 2013 or at any time thereafter through the date of the hearing.

         At issue in this appeal are the Commissioner's determinations at step four and step five of the sequential analysis. The plaintiff claims that the ALJ's determinations regarding her RFC are not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, she first claims that the ALJ did not give adequate weight to the opinions of Dr. Campagna and Dr. Salant regarding her mental disability. She next claims that the ALJ did not adequately consider her concerns regarding the side effects of her medications. Her final claim is that the hypothetical placed to the vocational expert did not accurately reflect her limitations, as opined upon by Dr. Kramer. The Commissioner, in response, avers that the ALJ's findings are well supported by substantial evidence.

         The court has reviewed the parties' submissions, the decision of the ALJ, the transcript of proceedings, the record of the agency proceedings and applicable statutes, regulations and appellate case law governing the issues presented. The court addresses the plaintiff's claims seriatum.

         Discussion

         A treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight when it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.” 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(2); Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 307 (2d Cir. 2009). However, an ALJ is not required to give controlling weight to medical opinions presented. Matta v. Astrue, 508 Fed.Appx. 53, 56 (2d Cir. 2013) (holding that the ALJ's decision need not directly correspond with any of the opinions of medical sources relied upon and the ALJ is entitled to weigh all of the evidence available to make an RFC finding that is consistent with the record as a whole); See also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399 (1971) (“We therefore are presented with the not uncommon situation of conflicting medical evidence. The trier of fact has the duty to resolve that conflict.”). “An ALJ need not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight when the opinion is based on a claimant's subjective complaints that [the] ALJ does not find credible.” Vance, 860 F.3d at 1120. In the final analysis, an ALJ must balance and weigh conflicting evidence. See Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012) (deferring to the Commissioner's resolution of conflicting evidence).

         The ALJ's Findings Regarding Dr. Campagna and Dr. Salant are Supported by Substantial Evidence

         Here, the plaintiff asserts that the ALJ gave insufficient weight to the opinions of Dr. Campagna and Dr. Salant. Although the ALJ carefully considered this medical evidence, she assigned it little or no weight. A ...


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