United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON PENDING MOTIONS
an administrative appeal filed by Plaintiff Michael Vonaa
following the denial of his application for disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental
security income benefits (“SSI”). It is brought
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff has moved for an
order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (“the
Commissioner”), or in the alternative, an order
remanding his case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 18]. The
Commissioner has responded with a motion to affirm her
decision. [Doc. # 19]. The Court heard oral argument on these
motions on November 30, 2018. After careful consideration of
the arguments raised by both parties, and thorough review of
the administrative record, the Court reverses the decision of
the Commissioner and remands for a calculation of disability
district court reviewing a final ... decision [of the
Commissioner of Social Security] pursuant to section 205(g)
of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is
performing an appellate function.” Zambrana v.
Califano, 651 F.2d 842 (2d Cir. 1981). The findings of
the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if
supported by substantial evidence, [are]
conclusive….” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Accordingly, the district court does not make a de
novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in
reviewing a denial of disability benefits. Id.;
Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the court's
function is to ascertain whether the Commissioner applied the
correct legal principles in reaching her conclusion, and
whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence.
Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987).
Therefore, absent legal error, a decision of the Commissioner
cannot be set aside if it is supported by substantial
evidence. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d
Cir. 1982). Further, if the Commissioner's decision is
supported by substantial evidence, that decision will be
sustained, even where there may also be substantial evidence
to support the claimant's contrary position. Schauer
v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982).
Substantial evidence is “‘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) (quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence
must be “more than a scintilla or touch of proof here
and there in the record.” Williams, 859 F.2d
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
filed his DIB and SSI applications December 5, 2013, alleging
a disability onset date of July 26, 2009. His claims were
denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels.
Plaintiff then requested a hearing. On December 7, 2015
Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before
Administrative Law Judge Ronald J. Thomas (the
“ALJ”). On February 1, 2016, the ALJ issued a
decision denying Plaintiff's claims. The Appeals Council
denied review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision. This
was 29 years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ.
(R. 40). He has a high school education and past relevant
work experience as a sales clerk/cashier. In accordance with
the Court's scheduling order, the parties filed a joint
statement of facts. [Doc. # 18-2]. The Court adopts this
medical chronology in full, and incorporates it by reference
THE ALJ'S DECISION
followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing
disability claims. At Step One, the ALJ found Plaintiff has
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged
onset date. (R. 21). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has
the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder; anxiety
disorder; and substance abuse disorder, in possible
remission. (R. 21). At Step Three, the ALJ found Plaintiff
does not have an impairment or combination of impairments
that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the
listed impairments. (R. 22).
then determined Plaintiff retains the following functional
Claimant can perform a full range of work at all exertional
levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: He
is limited to performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks
that do not require teamwork or working closely with the
public and require only occasional interaction with
co-workers, supervisors, and the public.
24-29). At Step Four, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to
perform his past relevant work. (R. 29). Finally, at Step
Five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert
to find that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (R.
29-30). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be
arguments on appeal all relate to the ALJ's RFC finding.
Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly
weighed and discussed the opinion evidence. In this case, the
record contains a variety of medical opinions, including
opinions from treating sources (Plaintiff's doctors and
social workers), from a consulting source who examined but
did not treat Plaintiff, and from state agency medical
consults who reviewed Plaintiff's medical records.
Olson, Plaintiff's treating physician and primary care
provider since October 2013, completed an RFC assessment form
on February 20, 2014. (R. 285-88). Dr. Olson rated Plaintiff
as having “a serious problem” functioning in all
aspects of the Plaintiff's activities of daily living,
social interactions, and task performance. (R. 285-88). The
ALJ gave “little weight” to this opinion,
reasoning that it was “quite conclusory, in a checklist
format, providing very little explanation for the evidence
relied on.” (R. 27).
Olson also completed an RFC assessment form on November 8,
2013, in which he identified Plaintiff's diagnosis as
“severe mental illness, anger, mood disorder/bipolar,
ptsd.” (R. 848). He rated Plaintiff as markedly limited
in all functional areas. (R. 856-58). Dr. Olson completed a
third RFC assessment form on December 22, 2014. (R. 810-19).
Dr. Olson opined that the Plaintiff's mood disorder
prevents him from working, and impacts his ability to work
because he has “no skills and interaction with
coworkers.” (R. 810-12). Dr. Olson again rated
Plaintiff as markedly limited in all functional areas. (R.
816-17). The ALJ gave no weight to either the November 2013
or the December 2014 opinion. The ALJ reasoned that
“the claimant's ...