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Rivera v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 14, 2018

CATALINA RIVERA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE: PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE [ECF NO. 19] AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM [ECF NO. 20]

          Kari A. Dooley, United States District Judge.

         The Plaintiff, Catalina Rivera, brings this administrative appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). She appeals the decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Rivera has moved to reverse the Commissioner's decision on the grounds that it is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. The Commissioner has also moved for an order affirming its decision. For the reasons set forth below, Rivera's motion is DENIED, and the Defendant's motion is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         It is well-settled that a district court will reverse the decision of the Commissioner 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. Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013). Substantial evidence can support the Commissioner's findings even if there is the potential for drawing more than one conclusion from the record. See Vance v. Berryhill, 860 F.3d 1114, 1120 (8th Cir. 2017). The court can reject the Commissioner's findings of facts “only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise.” Brault v. Social Sec. Admin. 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012). Stated simply, “if there is substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] determination, it must be upheld.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013).

         Factual and Procedural History

         On September 9, 2014, Rivera filed an application for supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Act and an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Act.[1] Although she initially alleged a disability onset date of August 27, 2014, Rivera subsequently amended her date of onset to December 21, 2014, the date on which she fell and injured her back. Rivera's applications were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) on September 28, 2016. On November 29, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Rivera's applications.

         In his decision, the ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims.[2] At Step 1, the ALJ determined that Rivera had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the claimed onset date. At Step 2, the ALJ determined that Rivera had several severe impairments. He concluded that her diabetes mellitus, however, was not “severe” within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ acknowledged Rivera's complaints of tingling in the lower extremities and diagnosis of diabetic neuropathy but concluded that “the evidence of record does not support a finding that the [Plaintiff] has significant functional limitations related to this condition.” At Step 3, the ALJ concluded that Rivera does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1. At Step 4, the ALJ concluded that Rivera has a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work, subject to certain specified limitations. The ALJ further found that Rivera did not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work. Finally, at Step 5, ALJ found that Rivera “is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” Accordingly, the ALJ found that Rivera was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. This appeal followed.

         On appeal, Rivera challenges the Commissioner's denial of supplemental security income benefits, arguing that the ALJ erred by (1) concluding that she had no significant functional limitations related to her diabetes mellitus and (2) finding that her daily activities were “at a much higher level than [she] asserted at the hearing.” The Commissioner, in response, avers that the ALJ's conclusions and findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. The claims will be addressed seriatum.

         Discussion

         The ALJ's Conclusions Concerning the Severity of Rivera's Diabetes Mellitus

         Rivera first contends that the ALJ erroneously concluded the she had no significant functional limitations as a result of her diabetes mellitus. Invoking the so-called “treating physician's rule, ” she argues that the ALJ erred by affording “very little weight” to the opinion of Dr. Ovanes Borgonos concerning the severity of her diabetes mellitus.

         The following additional facts are relevant to this claim. In support of her applications, Rivera submitted two brief letters from Dr. Borgonos. In the first letter, dated November 18, 2014, Dr. Borgonos listed Rivera's medical and psychiatric conditions (including “uncontrolled diabetes”) and stated that she was unable to work because of her various conditions. He further opined that “[s]he is disabled mainly due to her mental health issues.” In the second letter, dated October 28, 2017, Dr. Borgonos again listed Rivera's conditions (including “diabetes on insulin”) and again asserted in a conclusory fashion that she was “disabled.” Rivera also submitted Dr. Borgonos' progress notes and progress notes from her endocrinologist in support of her applications. In those notes, both physicians characterized Rivera's diabetes mellitus as being “uncontrolled, ” although Dr. Borgonos did not consistently use the adjective “uncontrolled” when referring to her diabetes mellitus.

         As previously indicated, after considering the available record, the ALJ found that her diabetes mellitus was not severe. The ALJ further considered and afforded “very little weight to” the opinion of Dr. Borgonos that Rivera was disabled and unable to work. The governing regulations and substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's decision to afford “very little weight” to Dr. Borgonos' opinion.

         Under the treating physician's rule, “the opinion of a claimant's treating physician as to the nature and severity of the impairment is given ‘controlling weight' so long as 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.'” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). Dr. Borgonos did not offer a fulsome medical opinion, however, concerning the severity of Rivera's various medical and psychiatric conditions. He listed her medical and psychiatric conditions and then stated in a conclusory fashion that she was disabled and unable to work. It is well settled that a treating physician's statement that a claimant is “disabled” or “unable to work” is not entitled to controlling weight because it represents an opinion on an issue reserved to the ...


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