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Schamback v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 21, 2019

CRAIG TODD SCHAMBACK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          Alvin W. Thompson, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Craig Todd Schamback appeals the Commissioner's final decision denying the plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act (“Act”).

         The plaintiff filed a motion for reversal or remand, arguing that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (1) “misinterpreted and misevaluated the evidence of record” by (a) not finding that obesity, diabetes and heart disease were “severe” impairments, and (b) by failing to properly assess the plaintiff's pain; (2) by failing to properly evaluate two medical source statements prepared by Dr. James Duran in 2016; and (3) by failing to properly formulate the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Pl.'s Mem. to Reverse (“ECF No. 20-1”) at 2.

         The Commissioner filed a motion for an order affirming the Commissioner's decision, arguing that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's Decision. See Def.'s Mot. to Affirm (ECF No. 24) at 1-2.

         For the reasons set forth below, the court concludes that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards, and the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Thus, the Commissioner's final decision should be affirmed.

         Legal Standard

         “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, 844 (2d Cir. 1981). The court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. See 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 a conclusion and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987).

         Discussion

         Section 223(d) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d), defines disability as "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . ." SSR 73-7c. “[F]or purposes of meeting the statutory requirement for ‘disability,' both the ‘inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity' and the ‘impairment' must exist at the same time and for the required 12-month period.” Id.

         Under Title II, a “disabling impairment(s)” “must be expected to result in death or must have lasted (or be expected to last) for at least 12 continuous months from the date of onset.” SSR 82-52 (rescinded and replaced October 2, 2018, after the ALJ's Decision). “The onset date of disability is the first day an individual is disabled as defined in the Act and the regulations.” SSR 83-20 (rescinded and replaced October 2, 2018, after the ALJ's Decision).

         Under Title II, the onset date may be “critical” because it “may affect the period for which the individual can be paid and may even be determinative of whether the individual is entitled to or eligible for any benefits”. SSR 83-20 (rescinded and replaced October 2, 2018, after the ALJ's Decision). In addition, “[a] [T]itle II worker cannot be found disabled under the Act unless insured status is also met at a time when the evidence established the presence of a disabling condition(s).” Id. Here, the plaintiff identified in his Title II application an onset date of September 30, 2007. R. at 219. The plaintiff's date last insured (“DLI”) is also September 30, 2007.

         At the first hearing on May 6, 2015, the ALJ who presided explained sua sponte to the plaintiff that the onset date and the date last insured were the same date, and that his claim was very specific. See R. at 90-98. The ALJ asked the plaintiff if he wanted to postpone the hearing to seek representation to assist in establishing an earlier onset date and to develop the record for the period before September 30, 2007. The plaintiff requested the postponement and the hearing was continued. See id.

         On July 20, 2016, almost one year later, a different ALJ (the one who wrote the Decision) held the second hearing. The claimant appeared with counsel. Counsel did not propose a new onset date. Again sua sponte, the ALJ inquired of counsel and the plaintiff regarding the claim and the evidence surrounding September 30, 2007 and two 2016 medical source statements (“MSS”) introduced into evidence, one amending the other (adding lumbar stenosis to cervical radiculopathy diagnoses and modifying limitations). See R. at 40-49 (hearing transcript); R. at 1537-39 (26F 6/13/16 MSS); R. at 1548-50 (29F 7/7/16 MSS). The ALJ asked counsel to get clarification from Dr. Duran, the treating physician who produced the two 2016 MSSs, as to the basis for the amendment, and if counsel and the plaintiff determined it was best, clarification as to the basis for Dr. Duran's opinions related to cervical radiculopathy and lumbar stenosis. See R. at 42-48.

         Severity of Obesity, Diabetes and Heart Disease

         The plaintiff challenges the evaluation of the evidence. Specifically, the plaintiff argues “misinterpretation”, “misevaluation”, and “misstatement” of the evidence. (ECF No. 20-1 at 2, 13-14). The plaintiff contends that the ALJ “made incorrect severity findings . . . on misstated evidence” because obesity, diabetes and heart disease were severe impairments, (ECF No. 20-1 at 13-14), and cites to evidence related to these three conditions. See ECF No. 20-1 at 14-15.

         The defendant maintains that “the ALJ's findings are well supported by substantial evidence and included an appropriate evaluation of records that post-date the DLI” (ECF No. 24 at 7), and that the plaintiff “cannot show that the impairments caused limitations not fully considered in the ALJ's decision” (ECF No. 24 at 9).

         At Step Two, an impairment is considered “severe” if it “significantly limits” the plaintiff's “ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). “Basic work activities” is defined as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). “Examples of these include . . . [p]hysical functions such as walking, ...


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