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Stuckman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 4, 2019



          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Erik Stuckman asserts that he is disabled and unable to work due to severe headaches, hearing, balance, and mental health issues resulting from a surgery he underwent in 2013 to remove a brain tumor. He has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, who denied Stuckman's claim for supplemental security income. For the reasons discussed below, I will deny Stuckman's motion to remand the decision of the Commissioner (Doc. #18) and grant the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. #19).


          I refer to transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #12-1 through Doc. #12-8. Stuckman filed an application for social security disability income on February 7, 2014, alleging a disability beginning on September 27, 2013. Doc. #12-3 at 40. Stuckman's claim was initially denied on May 5, 2014 and denied again upon reconsideration on November 13, 2014. He then filed a written request for a hearing on January 12, 2015. Ibid.

         Stuckman appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ronald J. Thomas on April 25, 2016. Ibid. Stuckman was represented by counsel. On May 23, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Stuckman was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 37-50. The Appeals Council affirmed the decision of the ALJ on September 15, 2017. Id. at 2. Stuckman then filed this federal action on November 15, 2017. Doc. #1. In response, the Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings, asking this Court to affirm her decision. Doc. #19.

         To qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that he is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, ” and “the impairment must be ‘of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.'” Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d 42, 45 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 423(d)(2)(A)). “[W]ork exists in the national economy when it exists in significant numbers either in the region where [a claimant] live[s] or in several other regions of the country, ” and “when there is a significant number of jobs (in one or more occupations) having requirements which [a claimant] [is] able to meet with [his] physical or mental abilities and vocational qualifications.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.966(a)-(b); see also Kennedy v. Astrue, 343 Fed.Appx. 719, 722 (2d Cir. 2009).

         To evaluate a claimant's disability, and to determine whether he qualifies for benefits, the agency engages in the following five-step process:

First, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Where the claimant is not, the Commissioner next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” that significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment that is listed [in the so-called “Listings”] in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. If the claimant has a listed impairment, the Commissioner will consider the claimant disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Commissioner presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a listed impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, [he] has the residual functional capacity to perform [his] past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform [his] past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to determine whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122-23 (2d Cir. 2012) (alteration in original) (citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). In applying this framework, an ALJ can find a claimant to be disabled or not disabled at a particular step and can make a decision without proceeding to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proving the case at steps one through four; at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that there is other work that the claimant can perform. See McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         The ALJ here concluded that Stuckman was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. At Step One, the ALJ determined based on Stuckman's employment history that he will meet the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019. Doc. #12-3 at 42. Stuckman has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 27, 2013, the date of the alleged onset of his disability. Ibid.

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that Stuckman suffers from the following severe impairments: acoustic neuroma s/p retrosigmoid transtemporal resection, an affective disorder, and anxiety. Ibid.

         At Step Three, the ALJ determined that Stuckman does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically exceeds the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Doc. #12-3 at 41-42. The ALJ did determine, however, that Stuckman had “mild restriction” in activities of daily living and “moderate difficulties” with social functioning and concentration, persistence, and pace. Id. at 43.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that Stuckman has “the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§] 416.967(b), ” but that he cannot be exposed to dangers such as heights and moving machinery and “must also avoid exposure to vibration, flashing lights or use of a computer screen for a duration beyond 15 minute at a time.” Doc. #12-3 at 44. The ALJ also found that Stuckman can “understand, remember and carryout simple, routine, and repetitive tasks” but is “limited to only occasional contact with the general public, co-workers, and supervisors.” Id. at 44-45. The ALJ found that Stuckman is unable to perform his past work as a fingerprint technician because the demands of that job “exceed the exertional and nonexertional limitations” of his RFC. Id. at 49.

         In formulating Stuckman's residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinion of treating physician Dr. Paul Schwartz and “only some weight” to the opinion of consultative examiner Chery Ellis, Psy.D. Id. at 48. The ALJ gave “great weight” to the opinions of state agency consultants Carl Bankoff, MD and Joseph Connolly Jr., MD. Id.; Doc. #12-4 at 2-25. The ALJ also found Stuckman's testimony about his symptoms to be only partially credible. Specifically, the ALJ found that “the documentary medical evidence does not support the level of limitation alleged.” Doc. #12-3 at 46. The ALJ found that the medical evidence supports the type of symptoms Stuckman alleges but not the “intensity, persistence, and limiting effects” that Stuckman attributes to them. Ibid. In the absence of a medical source statement on Stuckman's ability to perform basic work activity, and having accorded only “little” and “some” ...

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