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Walls v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 22, 2019

TIFFANY GRACE WALLS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [1] Defendant.

          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

          Robert M. Spector United States Magistrate Judge.

         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 Social Security Disability Insurance [“SSDI”] benefits.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On or about August 4, 2009, the plaintiff filed an application for SSDI benefits claiming that she has been disabled since January 1, 2000, due to bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. (Certified Transcript of Administrative Proceedings, dated December 13, 2017 [“Tr.”] 57-61, 63-69, 119-125). The Commissioner denied the plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 57-61, 63-69). On March 26, 2010, the plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge [“ALJ”]. (Tr. 81-82). On March 18, 2011, a hearing was held before ALJ Ronald Thomas, at which the plaintiff testified. (Tr. 30-56; see Tr. 11-29, 90-111). On April 20, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying the plaintiff's claim for benefits. (Tr. 11-29). On July 31, 2011, the plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision (Tr. 623-25), and on August 24, 2011, 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 appealed to the district court from the ALJ's April 20, 2011 unfavorable decision on September 19, 2011. See Walls v. Astrue, No. 3:11-CV-1452 (VLB)(TPS), Doc. No. 1. On May 3, 2012, the Commissioner filed a Consent Motion Under Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) with Reversal and Remand of the Cause to the Defendant, stating that “further development of the record and additional administrative action is warranted.” Walls, 3:11-CV-1452 (VLB)(TPS), Doc. No. 15-1 at 1. The Court granted the Consent Motion on the same day. Walls, 3:11-CV-1452 (VLB)(TPS), Doc. No. 16.

         Following the Court's remand, the Appeals Council issued an order on October 21, 2013, remanding the case to the ALJ. (Tr. 550-53). A second hearing was held before ALJ Thomas on August 12, 2014 (Tr. 445-73), who issued a second unfavorable decision on September 25, 2014. (Tr. 554-74). The Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ's second decision and, on August 2, 2016, remanded the case again to the ALJ, reasoning that the ALJ's September 2014 decision did not comply with its October 21, 2013 remand order. (Tr. 578). The Appeals Council instructed that the case be assigned to a different ALJ. (Tr. 575-79).

         A third hearing was held before ALJ Matthew Kuperstein on January 19, 2017, at which the plaintiff, a medical expert, and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 474-517; see Tr. 427). ALJ Kuperstein subsequently became “unavailable to issue a decision” and, therefore, ALJ Barry Best was assigned to issue a decision. (Tr. 427 (citing HALLEX I-2-8-40)). On May 31, 2017, ALJ Best issued an unfavorable decision, again denying the plaintiff's claim for SSDI benefits. (Tr. 424-44).

         The plaintiff filed her complaint in this pending action on October 3, 2017. (Doc. No. 1). On October 5, 2017, the parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge (Doc. Nos. 10 & 11), and on October 6, 2017, the case was reassigned to United States Magistrate Judge Joan G. Margolis. (Doc. No. 12). The defendant filed her answer and certified administrative transcript on January 11, 2018. (Doc. No. 16). The case was then transferred to this Magistrate Judge on May 1, 2018. (Tr. 22). On August 24, 2018, following six motions for extension of time, the plaintiff filed her Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 31), with brief in support (Doc. No. 31-1 [Pl.'s Mem.]), and a stipulation of facts (Doc. No. 31-2). On September 26, 2018, the defendant filed her Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 32), with brief in support. (Doc. No. 32-2 [Def.'s Mem.]).

         For the reasons stated below, the plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 31) is GRANTED, and the defendant's Motion to Affirm (Doc. No. 32) is DENIED.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[2]

         The Court presumes the parties' familiarity with the plaintiff's medical history, which is thoroughly discussed in the Joint Stipulation of Facts (Doc. No. 31-2). The Court cites only the portions of the record that are necessary to explain this ruling.

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Following the five-step evaluation process, [3] the ALJ found that the plaintiff's date last insured was September 30, 2000, and that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of January 1, 2000, through her date last insured. (Tr. 430, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq.). The ALJ concluded that, as of the date last insured, the plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: borderline personality disorder; bipolar disorder; anxiety disorder; depressive disorder; and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Tr. 430, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 et seq.). The ALJ, however, concluded that “the [plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the [plaintiff] did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.” (Tr. 430, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 et seq.). Because the ALJ determined that the plaintiff's medically determinable impairments were “nonsevere, ” he concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date of January 1, 2000, through the date last insured of September 30, 2000. (Tr. 435, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).

         IV. STAND ...


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