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Mason v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 19, 2018

SIMONE MASON, Plaintiff,


          MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.

         In this 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, 12.[1]

         For the following reasons, Ms. Mason's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.

         I. Procedural History, Facts, and Legal Standards

         I 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.

         Counsel 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 case.

         II. Standard of Review

         “A 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.

         Furthermore, 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.”).

         III. Discussion

         A. Severe Impairment

         Ms. 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.

         At step 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.[2] 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.

         The 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 ...

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