United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND
THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE
MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.
appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's denial of
benefits, Simone Mason, proceeding pro se, has filed a motion
to reverse the decision of the Commissioner, and the
Commissioner has filed a motion to affirm. Ms. Mason argues
that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred
in twelve respects. ECF No. 23 ¶¶ 1-12. These
arguments fall into three general categories of error: (1)
failure to find a severe impairment at step two of the
analysis, id. ¶¶ 1, 3-8, 11; (2) failure
to properly evaluate the credibility of Ms. Mason's
allegations regarding her symptoms, Id. ¶¶
3-7; and (3) failure to provide Ms. Mason with a clinical
examination, id. ¶¶ 2. Ms. Mason also
seeks to introduce additional documentation of her disability
and work history. Id. ¶¶ 9-10,
following reasons, Ms. Mason's motion is DENIED, and the
Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.
Procedural History, Facts, and Legal Standards
assume the parties' familiarity with the procedural
history of the case, the ALJ's opinion, the record, and
the five sequential steps used in the analysis of disability
claims. I cite only those portions of the record and the
legal standards necessary to explain this ruling.
for the Commissioner reports that she contacted Ms. Mason by
letter to coordinate a joint statement of stipulated facts.
ECF No. 24-1 at 2 n.2. Because Ms. Mason did not respond, the
Commissioner set forth a narrative of the relevant facts
“which is intended to be comprehensive and favorable to
both parties.” Ibid. I have reviewed this
statement of facts as well as the underlying record in the
Standard of Review
district court reviewing a final . . . decision pursuant to .
. . 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is performing an appellate
function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842,
844 (2d Cir. 1981). As such, the Commissioner's decision
“may be set aside only due to legal error or if it is
not supported by substantial evidence.” Crossman v.
Astrue, 783 F.Supp.2d 300, 302-03 (D. Conn. 2010). The
Second Circuit has defined substantial evidence as
“such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988)
(citation and quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence
must be “more than a mere scintilla or a touch of proof
here and there in the record.” Id.
because Ms. Mason is proceeding pro se, the Court construes
her claims of error liberally. See Boykin v.
KeyCorp, 521 F.3d 202, 214 (2d Cir. 2008) (“A
document filed pro se is to be liberally construed.”).
Mason argues that the “Commissioner did not carefully
review the Plaintiff's record, ” ECF No. 23 ¶
1, “Plaintiff has symptoms of depression, anxiety,
panic attacks, ” Id. ¶ 3,
“Plaintiff has substantial trauma, ” Id.
¶ 4, “Plaintiff has difficulty concentrating,
” Id. ¶ 5, “Plaintiff has
difficulty remember [sic] things for the past 8 years,
” Id. ¶ 6, “Plaintiff's memory
issue is due to her anxiety, ” Id. ¶ 7,
“Plaintiff's involvement in her church should not
prejudice her ability to receive disability benefits, ”
Id. ¶ 8, and “Plaintiff has attempted to
bring normalcy to her life however, plaintiff is still unable
to work competitively, ” Id. ¶ 11.
Because Ms. Mason is pro se, and these arguments concern the
impact of Ms. Mason's alleged impairments on her ability
to function, the Court construes these arguments as
challenging the ALJ's severity determination at step two
of the analysis.
two, the ALJ “determines whether the claimant has a
‘severe impairment' that limits her capacity to
work.” Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 46 (2d
Cir. 1996). At this step, if the claimant has a mental
impairment, the ALJ must follow the “special
technique” set forth in 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520a. Here, the ALJ found that Ms. Mason has
major depressive disorder, psychosis, and polysubstance abuse
in remission, thereby requiring application of the technique.
R. 13. As such, the ALJ was required to discuss the
limitation caused by the impairments in four broad areas:
“(1) activities of daily living; (2) social
functioning; (3) concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4)
episodes of decompensation.” Ornelas-Sanchez v.
Colvin, 632 Fed.Appx. 48, 49 (2d Cir. 2016). This
discussion “must include a specific finding as to the
degree of limitation” in each area. Kohler v.
Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 266 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted). “If the ALJ
finds the degree of limitation in each of the first three
areas to be mild or better and identifies no episodes of
decompensation, the ALJ will generally conclude that the
plaintiff's impairment is not severe.”
Habberfield v. Colvin, 2016 WL 769774, at *14
(N.D.N.Y. Feb. 1, 2016), report and recommendation adopted,
2016 WL 796064 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 24, 2016). “Where the
plaintiff's mental impairment is severe, the ALJ must
determine if it meets or is equivalent in severity to a
listed mental disorder.” Id. In this case, the
ALJ found no limitation in the first functional area, a mild
limitation in the second and third areas, and no episodes of
decompensation. R. 17. As such, the ALJ concluded that Ms.
Mason did not have a severe impairment. R. 17.
ALJ's specific findings in each of the four functional
areas were supported by substantial evidence. With regard to
the first functional area, the ALJ found “no
limitation” in activities of daily living and cited the
claimant's testimony about doing projects at home,
cooking, cleaning, attending conferences, and traveling. R.
17. In an earlier section of the decision, the ALJ provides
further support for this finding. See, e.g., R. 14 &
40-42 (relying on Ms. Mason's testimony to find that
“[she] likes to do projects in her apartment, and
decorate, ” “likes to go to second hand stores,
” and “enjoys refinishing furniture, doing
artwork, and sewing.”); R. 15 & 327 (noting that
Ms. Mason reported becoming a conservator for a man in her
housing complex); R. 15 & 325 (noting that Ms. Mason
“reported doing photography, community projects, and
attending church”). In addition, the ALJ assigned great
weight to the opinion of the consultative examiner, who noted
that Ms. Mason's ...