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Vonaa v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 4, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


         This is 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).[1] 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 benefits.


         “A 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 at 258.


         Plaintiff 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 action followed.

         Plaintiff 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 herein.


         The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims.[2] 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).

         The ALJ then determined Plaintiff retains the following functional capacity[3]:

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.

         (R. 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 disabled.


         Plaintiff's 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.

         A. Medical Opinions

         Dr. Douglas Olson

         Dr. 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).

         Dr. 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 ...

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