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Vozzella v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 25, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting COMMISSIONER OF Social Security, Defendant.



         The plaintiff, Robert Vozzella, seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits. The plaintiff moves to reverse the Commissioner's decision or, alternatively, remand for a rehearing. (Doc. #35.) The Commissioner, in turn, moves to affirm the decision. (Doc. #38.) For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiff's motion is granted and the defendant's motion is denied.[1]

         I. Administrative Proceedings

         In April 2015, the plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits alleging that he was disabled as of September 27, 2013. His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. He requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On April 17, 2017, the plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at the hearing. A vocational expert also testified. On August 29, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (R. at 27.) On January 26, 2018, the Appeals Counsel denied review, making the ALJ's decision final. This action followed. On November 5, 2018, the plaintiff filed a motion for reversal or remand and on December 31, 2018, the defendant filed a motion to affirm.

         II. Standard of Review

         This court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited. "It is not [the court's] function to determine de novo whether [the plaintiff] is disabled." Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 37 (2d Cir. 1996). The court may reverse an ALJ's finding that a plaintiff is not disabled only if the ALJ applied the incorrect legal standards or if the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 683 F.3d 443, 447 (2d Cir. 2012). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. . . . It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Brault, 683 F.3d at 447 (quotation marks and citations omitted).

         III. Statutory Framework

         The Commissioner of Social Security uses the following five-step procedure to evaluate disability claims:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant suffers such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience.... Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.

Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal alterations and citation omitted).

         IV. ALJ's Decision

         Following the five step evaluation process, the ALJ first found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of September 27, 2013 through his date last insured. (R. at 16.) At step two, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had severe impairments of "lumbar spine impairment, degenerative disc disease, left upper extremity disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome, forearm nerve damage tricep tears, tendinitis (both elbows), bilateral hip pain, right knee disorder (partial torn ACL), plantar fasciitis (left foot), depression and anxiety." (R. at 16.) At step three, the ALJ found that the plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 16.) The ALJ next determined that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[2] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) with the following limitations:

he could occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl and kneel; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but could not climb ladders, rope or scaffolds. The claimant could do frequent reaching in all directions, and frequent handling with the left nondominant upper extremity. He could not do production rate or pace work (i.e., assembly line work, working in close tandem with co-workers at an outwardly directed pace) but could do individual table/bench work. The ...

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