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Almonte v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 22, 2019

RAMON ALMONTE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE: PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE OR REMAND [ECF NO. 17] AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM [ECF NO. 18]

          KARI A. DOOLEY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Preliminary Statement

         The Plaintiff, Ramon Almonte, brings this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). He appeals the Defendant Commissioner's decision denying his disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”) and denying him Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Act, based upon a finding that he is not “disabled” under the Act. He seeks an order of this Court reversing the Commissioner's decision on the ground that the Commissioner's findings are not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Alternatively, he seeks a remand to the Commissioner for further proceedings on the ground that he did not receive a full and fair hearing before the ALJ. The Commissioner, on the other hand, avers that the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and were made following a full and fair hearing. She asks this Court to affirm the decision.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's motion is DENIED. The Defendant Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         The Plaintiff sought a determination that he was disabled as of November 22, 2012, the purported date of onset, [1] through the date of the hearing on his application. A person is “disabled” under the Act if that person is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). A physical or mental impairment is one that “results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3). In addition, a claimant must establish that his “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [he] 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 ….” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to which an ALJ must adhere when evaluating disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. 404.1520. In brief, the five steps are as follows: (1) the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, [2] the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which limits his or her mental or physical ability to do basic work activities; (3) if such a “severe impairment” is established, the Commissioner next determines whether the medical evidence establishes that the claimant's impairment “meets or equals” an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations; (4) if the claimant does not establish the “meets or equals” requirement, the Commissioner must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (hereinafter “RFC”) to perform his or her past work; and (5) if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work, the Commissioner must next determine whether there is other work in the national economy which the claimant can perform. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to steps one through four. See Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008). The Commissioner bears the burden as to step five, that is, finding the existence of work in the national economy that the claimant is capable of performing. McIntyre v Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         It is well-settled that the district court will reverse an ALJ's decision 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. See Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (“If there is substantial evidence to support the [agency's] determination, it must be upheld”); Talavera, 697 F.3d at 151 (limiting review to “determining whether the SSA's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence”); Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013) (“[W]hether there is substantial evidence supporting [the Plaintiff's] view is not the question here; we must decide whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision”) (emphasis in original). “Even where the administrative record may also adequately support contrary findings on particular issues, the ALJ's factual findings ‘must be given conclusive effect' so long as they are supported by substantial evidence.” Genier v. Astrue, 606 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982)). Once an ALJ finds facts, the Court can reject those facts “only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise.” Brault v. Social Sec. Admin., 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ's Decision

         At step one, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the claimed onset date, November 22, 2012. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had severe impairments, specifically, lumbar spine degenerative disc disease with hypertrophic changes at ¶ 5-S1, status-post cervical spine fusion surgery associated with neck pain, and obesity. At step three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff did not establish an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the listed impairments in the regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. At step four, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had an RFC to perform “light work” as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The ALJ placed limitations on this determination, however, finding that the plaintiff was limited to frequent climbing of ramps or stairs; occasional climbing of ladder, ropes, or scaffolds; frequent balancing, stooping kneeling, and crouching; and occasional crawling. As a result, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work.[3] At step five, crediting the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ determined that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform even with the limitations identified above. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of November 22, 2012, or at any time thereafter through the date of the hearing.

         At issue in this appeal is the Commissioner's determination of the Plaintiff's RFC, specifically the finding that he is able to perform light work subject to the stated limitations. In reaching this decision, the ALJ did not fully accept the Plaintiff's testimony regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effect of his lower back and neck pain. The ALJ also gave little weight to the opinion statement submitted by the Plaintiff's chiropractor, Dr. Kaczanowski. The Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in her assessment of the evidence, erred in not giving greater credit to the Plaintiff's testimony, and erred in giving little weight to Dr. Kaczanowski's opinion. Accordingly, the Plaintiff avers that the RFC was wrong and that the finding of “not disabled” must be reversed.

         Discussion

         The ...


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