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Mendez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 1, 2019




         This action, filed under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security [“SSA” or “the Commissioner”] denying the plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income [“SSI”] and Social Security Disability Insurance [“SSDI”] benefits.


         On or about April 14, 2014, the plaintiff filed an application for SSDI benefits claiming that he has been disabled since November 24, 2013, due to arthritis and a bulging disc in his neck, spondylosis, stenosis, a tumor above his spine, and muscle spasms. (Doc. No. 21 (Certified Transcript of Administrative Proceedings, dated February 12, 2018 [“Tr.”]) 94-95, 105-06, 123, 129; see Tr. 202-03). The Commissioner denied the plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 94-104, 105-17; see also Tr. 122-26, 128-31). On February 12, 2015, the plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge [“ALJ”] (Tr. 132-33), and filed an application for SSI benefits (Tr. 204-12). On June 23, 2016, a hearing was held before ALJ Alexander Peter Borre, at which the plaintiff and a vocational expert, James Cohen, Ph.D., testified. (Tr. 50-93; see Tr. 14-37, 162-90, 296-98). On September 15, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying the plaintiff's claim for benefits. (Tr. 14-37). On November 17, 2016, the plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision (Tr. 197-201), and on November 9, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6).

         The plaintiff filed his complaint in this pending action on January 2, 2018. (Doc. No. 1). On March 28, 2018, the case was reassigned to United States District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant. (Doc. No. 15). On April 12, 2018, the parties consented to jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge, and the defendant filed a corrected certified administrative transcript.[2] (Doc. Nos. 19-21). On April 13, 2018, the case was reassigned to Magistrate Judge Joan G. Margolis. (Doc. No. 24). The case was then transferred to this Magistrate Judge on May 1, 2018. (Doc. No. 26). On May 4, 2018, the plaintiff filed his Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 27), with brief in support (Doc. No. 27-1 [Pl.'s Mem.]), and a stipulation of facts (Doc. No. 27-2). On August 1, 2018, the defendant filed her Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 30), with brief in support. (Doc. No. 30-1 [Def.'s Mem.]).

         For the reasons stated below, the plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 27) is GRANTED, and the defendant's Motion to Affirm (Doc. No. 30) is DENIED.


         The Court presumes the parties' familiarity with the plaintiff's medical history, which is thoroughly discussed in the Joint Stipulation of Facts (Doc. No. 27-1). The Court cites only the portions of the record that are necessary to explain this decision.


         Following the five-step evaluation process, [4] the ALJ found that the plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2018, and that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of November 24, 2013, through his date last insured. (Tr. 20, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971, et seq.). The ALJ concluded that, as of the date last insured, the plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “cervical degenerative disc disease status post two cervical fusion surgeries and depression.”[5] (Tr. 20, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). At step three, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 21, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). The ALJ found that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity [“RFC”] to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that he could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could not tolerate exposure to hazards such as open, moving machinery; could occasionally climb ramps and stairs; could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and reach overhead bilaterally; could frequently finger and handle bilaterally; and was limited to simple and repetitive tasks. (Tr. 23). At step four, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 29, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965). At step five, after considering the plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there were significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 30, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from the alleged onset date of November 24, 2013, through the date of his decision.[6](Tr. 31, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).


         The scope of review of a Social Security disability determination involves two levels of inquiry. First, the court must decide whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in making the determination. See Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). Second, the court must decide whether substantial evidence supports the determination. See Id. The court may “set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the decision is based on legal error.” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127 (2d Cir. 2008) (citation and internal quotations marks omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it is more than a “mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted); see Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). The substantial evidence rule also applies to inferences and conclusions that are drawn from findings of fact. See Gonzalez v. Apfel, 23 F.Supp.2d 179, 189 (D. Conn. 1998) (citation omitted); Rodriguez v. Califano, 431 F.Supp. 421, 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1977) (citations omitted). However, the court may not decide facts, reweigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Dotson v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 571, 577 (7th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). Instead, the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the ALJ's factual findings. See Id. Furthermore, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence and should be upheld even in those cases where the reviewing court might have found otherwise. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Beauvoir v. Chater, 104 F.3d 1432, 1433 (2d Cir. 1997) (citation omitted); Eastman v. Barnhart, 241 F.Supp.2d 160, 168 (D. Conn. 2003).

         V. DISCUSSION

         In this appeal, the plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in two respects. First, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to assess properly the plaintiff's complaints of pain and failed to consider adequately the medical and non-medical opinions concerning the effects of the plaintiff's pain. (Pl.'s Mem. at 2-12). Second, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to apply properly the treating physician rule when weighing the opinions of the plaintiff's primary care physician, Dr. David DeLucia. (Pl.'s Mem. at 12-15). The defendant responds that the ALJ was correct in determining that the plaintiff's complaints of pain were not entirely credible and in affording little weight to Dr. DeLucia's opinion. (Def.'s Mem. at 4-10). The Court agrees with the plaintiff's first argument that remand ...

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