United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE THE
DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER AND ON THE DEFENDANT'S
MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER
M. Spector, United States Magistrate Judge
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 Social
Security Disability Insurance [“SSDI”]
about April 12, 2012, the plaintiff filed an application for
SSDI benefits claiming that he has been disabled since March
1, 2011, due to “[a]rthri[tis], diverticulitis, [l]eg
problems, shoulder problems[, d]eaf in left ear, [f]atigue,
[h]ernia, and [c]hronic [hepatitis] C [without] mention of
heptic coma.” (Certified Transcript of Administrative
Proceedings, dated February 1, 2018 [“Tr.”]
373-76; see Tr. 202, 263). The Commissioner denied
the plaintiff's application initially and upon
reconsideration. (Tr. 224-32, 234-49). On March 22, 2013, the
plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge [“ALJ”] (Tr. 281-82), and on June 26, 2014,
a hearing was held before ALJ Martha Bower, at which the
plaintiff and a vocational expert, Edmond J. Calandra,
testified. (Tr. 199-223; see Tr. 315-335, 343-49).
On August 5, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision
denying the plaintiff's claim for benefits. (Tr. 179-98).
On August 13, 2014, the plaintiff requested review of the
hearing decision (Tr. 178), and on October 26, 2015, the
Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for
review, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final
decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 2-6).
plaintiff appealed to the District Court from the ALJ's
August 5, 2014 decision on December 21, 2015. See
Seneschal v. Colvin, No. 3:15-CV-1845 (AVC), Doc. No. 1.
In that case, the defendant filed a Motion for Entry of
Judgment under Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) with
Reversal and Remand of the Cause to the Defendant.
Seneschal, Doc. No. 18. In particular, the defendant
stated, “Upon review of the record, the Commissioner
finds that further development of the record and additional
administrative action is warranted.”
Seneschal, Doc. No. 18 at 1. The defendant indicated
that, on remand, “[t]he ALJ will reassess [the]
plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity, and in
so doing, reevaluate the medical and other opinions of
record. The ALJ will also, if appropriate, obtain vocational
expert testimony to determine whether plaintiff can perform
past relevant work and/or make an adjustment to other work
that exists in significant numbers.”
Seneschal, Doc. No. 18 at 2.
11, 2016, Senior United States District Judge Alfred V.
Covello entered an order reversing the Commissioner's
decision and remanding the case to the Commissioner for
additional administrative proceedings. See
Seneschal, Doc. No. 19. Judgment entered in the
plaintiff's favor on July 14, 2016. See
Seneschal, Doc. No. 20.
August 20, 2016, the Appeals Council issued an order
remanding the case to an ALJ. (Tr. 993-98). In the order, the
Appeals Council specified that the ALJ should do the
following: (1) further develop the record, including
additional opinion evidence; (2) discuss whether it was
“medically necessary” for the plaintiff to use a
cane; and (3) address the plaintiff's overhead reaching
limitations in his residual functional capacity. (Tr.
995-96). Accordingly, a second hearing before an ALJ took
place on May 24, 2017, before ALJ John Noel. (See
Tr. 831-47). At the hearing before ALJ Noel, the plaintiff,
and vocational expert, Steven B. Sachs, PhD,  testified. On
September 6, 2017, the ALJ issued another unfavorable
decision denying the plaintiff's claim for benefits. (Tr.
plaintiff filed his complaint in this pending action on
January 3, 2018. (Doc. No. 1). On January 22, 2018, the
parties consented to jurisdiction by a United States
Magistrate Judge, and the case was reassigned to Magistrate
Judge Joan G. Margolis. (Doc. No. 16). On March 9, 2018, the
defendant filed her answer and certified administrative
transcript, dated February 1, 2018. (Doc. No. 17). The case
was then transferred to this Magistrate Judge on May 1, 2018.
(Doc. No. 21). After three consent motions for extension of
time, the plaintiff filed the pending Motion to Reverse the
Decision of the Commissioner on July 2, 2018, with brief in
support (Doc. No. 29 [Pl.'s Mem.]), and a stipulation of
facts. (Doc No. 29-1). On August 31, 2018, the defendant
filed her Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner
with brief in support. (Doc. No. 30 [Def.'s Mem.]).
reasons stated below, the plaintiff's Motion to Reverse
the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 29) is DENIED, and
the defendant's Motion to Affirm (Doc. No. 30) is
Court presumes parties' familiarity with the
plaintiff's medical history, which is thoroughly
discussed in the Joint Stipulation of Facts (Doc. No. 29-1).
The Court cites only the portions of the record that are
necessary to explain this ruling.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
the five-step evaluation process,  the ALJ found that the
plaintiff's date last insured was September 30, 2016 (Tr.
834), and that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset date of March 1,
2011, through his date last insured. (Tr. 834, citing 20
C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq.). The ALJ concluded
that, as of the date last insured, the plaintiff had the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease;
arthritis of the upper and lower extremity; depression; and
post-traumatic stress disorder. (Tr. 834, citing 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(c)). At step three, the ALJ concluded that, as of
the date last insured, 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. 836, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d),
404.1525, and 404.1526). The ALJ found that, as of the date
last insured, the plaintiff had the residual functional
capacity [“RFC”] to perform light work, as
defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that he could
only occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; frequently stoop; occasionally balance, kneel,
crouch, and crawl; and could perform simple, routine tasks,
use judgment limited to simple, work-related decisions, and
deal with routine changes in the work setting. (Tr. 838). At
step four, the ALJ concluded that, as of the date last
insured, the plaintiff was unable to perform any past
relevant work (Tr. 846, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565);
however, after considering the plaintiff's age,
education, work experience, and RFC, he concluded, at step
five, that jobs existed in significant numbers in the
national economy that the plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 846,
citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
Specifically, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff could
perform the jobs of a hand packer, a production worker, and a
production inspector. (Tr. 847). 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 March 1, 2011, through the date last
insured of September 30, 2016. (Tr. 847, citing 20 C.F.R.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in several respects.
First, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly relied
upon the testimony of the vocational expert, Dr. Sachs, in
reaching his decision at step five of the analysis.
(See Pl.'s Mem. at 1-21). Second, the plaintiff
argues that the ALJ failed to follow the treating physician
rule. (See Pl.'s Mem. at 21-28). Third, the
plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to develop the record,
as there was no medical source statement from any of the
plaintiff's mental health treating physicians.
(See Pl.'s Mem. at 28-36). Lastly, the plaintiff
argues that the “ALJ's evaluation of the
plaintiff's pain was insufficient.” (See
Pl.'s Mem. at 36-37). The Court disagrees with the
THE ALJ PROPERLY RELIED ON THE TESTIMONY OF THE
plaintiff argues that the ALJ relied improperly upon the
testimony of the vocational expert, Dr. Sachs, in reaching
his conclusion at step five. (See Pl.'s Mem. at
1-21). Specifically, the plaintiff argues that Dr.
Sachs's use of data from the U.S. Publishing Company,
which gets its data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is
problematic for two reasons: (1) “the U.S. Publishing
Company document only breaks down Bureau of Labor Statistics
data by skill level and exertional level; it does not account
for any of the other variables that might be included in an
ALJ's hypothetical”; and (2) “Mr. Sachs has
provided us with absolutely no indication of how this U.S.
Company document comes up with its numbers (the sole source
of his job incidence testimony) or the reliability of those
numbers.” (Pl.'s Mem. at 6 (emphasis omitted)). The
defendant responds that Dr. Sachs “utilized reliable
statistical sources from U.S. Publishing, as well as his
personal knowledge of the labor market and his over
twenty-years of experience as an expert to develop his
opinions, ” and that, “as the ALJ noted in his
decision, he was empowered, under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566
to take administrative notice of the U.S. Publishing data
that [Dr.] Sachs relied, in part, upon.” (Def.'s
Mem. at 18-19).
substantial evidence standard is both
“deferential” and “extremely
flexible.” Brault v. Comm'r Soc. Security,
683 F.3d 443, 449 (2d Cir. 2012). Federal courts have
“review[ed] the entirety of a [vocational expert's]
testimony, including the expert's methods, to make sure
it rose to the level of ‘substantial'
evidence.” Id. at 450 (citing Palmer v.
Astrue, No. 1:10-CV-151 (JGM), 2011 WL 3881024, at *6
(D. Vt. Sept. 2, 2011); see also Jones-Reid v.
Astrue, 934 F.Supp.2d 381, 406-07 (D. Conn. 2012)
(concluding that an ALJ had a sufficient basis to find a
vocational expert's testimony reliable, where the
vocational expert “utilized reliable statistical
sources as well [as] personal knowledge and experience to
develop the occupational projections provided, ” and
that “[w]hile the [vocational expert] did not provide a
step-by-step description of the methodology used, this Court
cannot say that the ALJ erred in accepting the [vocational
expert's] testimony as reliable.”). The Second
Circuit has explained that substantial evidence supports a
vocational expert's testimony where the vocational expert
has “identified the sources he generally consulted to
determine such figures, ” and that there is a
“marked absence of any applicable regulation or
decision of this Court requiring a vocational expert to
identify with greater specificity the source of his figures
or to provide supporting documentation.”
Brault, 683 F.3d at 450 (citing Galliotti v.
Astrue, 266 Fed.Appx. 66 (2d Cir. 2008) ...