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Miller v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 5, 2018

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


          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge.


         Plaintiff Julie Ann Miller (“Miller”) 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 her application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“SSDI”) and Title XVI supplemental security income (“SSI”). See Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. No. 1). Miller seeks reversal or remand of the Decision rendered by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ryan A. Alger, which affirmed the Commissioner's denial. See Mot. to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (“Mot. to Reverse”) (Doc. No. 25). The Commissioner cross-moves for an order affirming that Decision. See Mot. to Affirm the Decision of the Comm'r (“Mot. to Affirm”) (Doc. No. 28).

         For the reasons set forth below, the Motion to Reverse or Remand is DENIED. The Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner is GRANTED.


         Miller applied for disability insurance benefits on April 21, 2015, and supplemental security income benefits on April 25, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of January 5, 2014 in both applications. See R. at 18. The Commissioner denied Miller's application initially on October 20, 2015, and again upon reconsideration on April 20, 2016. See id. Miller requested a hearing with an ALJ, which was held before ALJ Alger on February 16, 2017. See id. Miller did not attend the hearing, but an attorney representing her was present. See id.

         On April 26, 2017, ALJ Alger issued an unfavorable decision for Miller, affirming the Commissioner's denial and finding that Miller was not disabled. See id. at 33. Specifically, ALJ Alger found that Miller's impairments did not meet or equal any listing, see id. at 22-24, and that, with her level of residual functional capacity (“RFC”), there were jobs in the national economy that she could perform, see id. at 32. Miller requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on May 23, 2017. See id. at 1-4 (Notice of Appeals Council Action). Following that denial, ALJ Alger's April 26, 2017 Decision became a final decision reviewable by this court. See id. Miller filed this appeal on October 13, 2017. See Compl.

         III. FACTS[1]

         Miller was born in 1976, and she was 40 at the time of her hearing in February 2017. See R. at 272. She was previously employed as a bookkeeper and in accounts payable, before leaving that work in 2014 due to pain from her medical conditions. See id. at 274-75. Miller also worked intermittently in 2016, though her income fell below the level established for substantial gainful activity. Id. at 234, 241.

         Miller's medical history for the purpose of her disability claim begins in January 2014, when she presented at a clinic reporting of back pain. Id. at 336-37. An x-ray revealed minor degenerative changes of the lower lumbar spine. Id. at 338. Miller reported severe back pain during a visit to UConn Health Center in May 2014. Id. at 345. Imaging showed evidence of mild stenosis and disc desiccation. Id. at 345, 347. During this time period, Miller did not report radiculopathy. Id. at 348.

         Miller also visited a physician at the Hartford Medical Group in May 2014. She again reported back pain, and examinations indicated that, while she had full range of motion and walked with a normal gait, the lumbar area was tender to the touch, and a straight leg test[2] resulted in increased pain. Id. The treating medical provider also noted that Miller presented with a depressed affect. Id. at 404. The treating provider noted similar mental and physical impressions at an appointment in July 2014. See Id. at 418-26.

         Miller returned to Hartford Medical Group in February 2015. The medical provider advised Miller to engage in relaxation exercises, and to avoid heavy lifting. Id. at 430. Miller presented with a normal gait, range of motion, and muscle strength. Id. at 431. At a further examination in April 2015, Miller again reported lower back pain; a straight leg test was negative, and Miller had full range of motion in the lumbar spine. Id. at 433-34.

         Miller saw Pamela Campbell, a registered nurse and licensed therapist, for counseling, beginning in April 2015. Id. at 369-71. Miller presented as neat, but with restricted mood and a tense posture. Id. at 369. Miller stated she sought therapy for assistance dealing with the emotional side-effects of quitting smoking, as well as for assistance with her struggle with back pain. Id. at 371.

         At a June 2015 visit to Hartford Medical Group, Miller presented with an “abnormal” mood, described as depressed, dysphoric, and futile. Id. at 445. She was assessed as presenting with acute anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder. Id. at 443. Physically, however, Miller presented with normal gait, and her musculature was described as “grossly normal.” Id. at 445. In an August 2015 visit to the same facility, Miller presented with a normal mood and affect. Id. at 453.

         Miller attended two consultative examinations. The first took place in August 2015. At that examination, Miller's range of motion in her extremities was normal, as was her grip strength and manipulation. Id. at 381. While Miller presented with a normal gait and was able to move without assistance, a straight leg test conducted during the exam was positive bilaterally. Id. The second consultative examination, this one psychological, took place in October 2015. Miller described her mental impairments, including emotional distress and panic attacks. Id. at 386. Miller reported that she was able to drive, go for walks, and engage in yoga. Id. at 388. She presented as logical and coherent, while displaying a depressed and tearful affect. Id. at 386. Miller demonstrated an ability to spell a word backwards, recall a series of digits, and interpret a proverb. Id. at 387.

         Miller again visited Hartford Medical Group in November 2015. She presented with back pain. The physician noted that it was unclear why Miller's condition was causing her the reported amount of pain, given the lack of significant stenosis and because Miller was ambulating “fine.” Id. at 483. The provider concluded Miller should be referred to a pain specialist. Id.

         Miller sought treatment with a licensed counselor in January 2016. Miller presented as depressed and anxious, but cooperative. Id. at 560. Miller also exhibited organized thinking and intact cognition. Id. Miller was seen by a different provider the following month. Id. at 570. She presented with an “appropriate” affect, as well as organized, logical thoughts. Id.


         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). Substantial evidence requires “more than a mere scintilla, ” but is a “very deferential standard of review.” Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 447-48 (2d Cir. 2012). It requires “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 448. If the Commissioner's findings of fact are ...

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