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Keaton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 25, 2019

REGINALD KEATON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          RULING ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

          STEFAN R. UNDERHILL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In this Social Security appeal, Reginald Keaton moves to reverse the decision by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his claim for disability insurance benefits. The Commissioner of Social Security moves to affirm the decision. Because the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) determination was supported by substantial evidence, I grant the Commissioner's motion and deny Keaton's.

         I. Standard of Review

         The SSA follows a five-step process to evaluate disability claims. Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (per curiam). First, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant currently engages in “substantial gainful activity.” Greek v. Colvin, 802 F.3d 370, 373 n.2 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)). Second, if the claimant is not working, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “‘severe' impairment, ” i.e., an impairment that limits his or her ability to do work-related activities (physical or mental). Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521). Third, if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the Commissioner determines whether the impairment is considered “per se disabling” under SSA regulations. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). If the impairment is not per se disabling, then, before proceeding to step four, the Commissioner determines the claimant's “residual functional capacity” based on “all the relevant medical and other evidence of record.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), (e), 404.1545(a)). “Residual functional capacity” is defined as “what the claimant can still do despite the limitations imposed by his [or her] impairment.” Id. Fourth, the Commissioner decides whether the claimant's residual functional capacity allows him or her to return to “past relevant work.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), (f), 404.1560(b)). Fifth, if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the Commissioner determines, “based on the claimant's residual functional capacity, ” whether the claimant can do “other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 404.1560(b)). The process is “sequential, ” meaning that a petitioner will be judged disabled only if he or she satisfies all five criteria. See id.

         The claimant bears the ultimate burden to prove that he or she was disabled “throughout the period for which benefits are sought, ” as well as the burden of proof in the first four steps of the inquiry. Id. at 374 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a)); Selian, 708 F.3d at 418. If the claimant passes the first four steps, however, there is a “limited burden shift” to the Commissioner at step five. Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam). At step five, the Commissioner need only show that “there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do; he [or she] need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's residual functional capacity.” Id.

         In reviewing a decision by the Commissioner, I conduct a “plenary review” of the administrative record but do not decide de novo whether a claimant is disabled. Brault v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 683 F.3d 443, 447 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam); see Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983) (per curiam) (“[T]he reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn.”). I may reverse the Commissioner's decision “only if it is based upon legal error or if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Greek, 802 F.3d at 374-75. The “substantial evidence” standard is “very deferential, ” but it requires “more than a mere scintilla.” Brault, 683 F.3d at 447-48. Rather, substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Greek, 802 F.3d at 375. Unless the Commissioner relied on an incorrect interpretation of the law, “[i]f there is substantial evidence to support the determination, it must be upheld.” Selian, 708 F.3d at 417.

         II. Facts

         Reginald Keaton filed an application for Supplemental Security Income benefits on June 10, 2014. ALJ Decision, R. at 44.[1] In his application, Keaton alleged a disability onset date of June 1, 2013. At the time of the alleged disability onset, Keaton was 49 years old. Keaton identified his disability as arthritis in back, left hand injury, dislocated shoulder, neck problems, pain in left side due to stabbing, muscle spasms in left leg, asthma, allergies, headaches, and high cholesterol. Disability Report - Adult, from SSA, R. at 232. The SSA initially denied his claim on July 17, 2014, and again on reconsideration on September 22, 2014, finding that Keaton's “condition [was] not severe enough to be considered disabling.” T16 Notice of Disapproved Claim, R. at 148.

         Keaton requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 25, 2014, and a hearing was held before ALJ Louis Bonsangue on April 27, 2016. ALJ Decision, R. at 44. At the hearing, the ALJ questioned Keaton about his conditions, work history, treatment history, and ability to perform daily working and living functions. Tr. of ALJ Hr'g, R. at 64-103.

         Keaton responded that he walked with a cane, but that he did not have it with him the day of the hearing because he had forgotten it. Id. at 71. Further, he testified that his girlfriend handled laundry, cooking, shopping, and cleaning his apartment because it “bother[ed]” his back to “bend down too much[.]” Id. at 74. Keaton stated that he did not drive. Id. at 71. He told the ALJ that he had “muscle spasms in [his] back” and that, during the hearing, he could feel “lower case and higher case pain from [his] neck.” Id. at 81. Keaton told the ALJ that to treat his back pain, he took “a lot of hot baths” as well as Percocet. Id. at 81-82. He stated that he had arthritis in his back, as well as “rotary cuff damage” to his right arm, which impeded his ability to lift boxes in his job while loading and unloading trucks. Id. at 82. He testified that he had “a lot of agony, and [] a lot of tingling” and that sometimes his arm would fall asleep. Id. at 84. He also stated that he could not lift anything using his arm because his left middle finger would not bend, and he had difficulty bending his left ring finger. Id. He also stated that his right fingers would become numb and cramp up, and pain would shoot into his arm and shoulder. Id. at 85. He first testified that his right leg cramped up, but pointed to his left leg. Id. He then corrected his statement and said that his right leg cramped. Id.

         The ALJ then heard testimony from Vocational Expert Renee Jubreys, who testified that Keaton's prior work as truck driver helper was considered heavy work; his past work as a sandblaster was considered medium work; and his past work as a carpenter was considered medium work. Id. at 90-91.

         The ALJ asked Jubreys to consider a hypothetical individual of the same age, education, and experience as Keaton, who was limited to performing medium exertion level work with the following limitations: could frequently climb ramps and stairs; never climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds; frequently balance, but only occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, or crawl. Tr. of ALJ Hearing, R. at 91.

         The ALJ asked Jubreys whether that hypothetical individual could perform any of Keaton's prior jobs, and she testified that sandblaster was the only prior job that this hypothetical individual could perform. Id. at 91. The ALJ then asked Jubreys whether there were other occupations that such an individual could perform. Jubreys testified that the hypothetical individual could work: as a hospital cleaner, with approximately 150, 000 jobs in the national economy; as a cook helper, with approximately 265, 000 jobs in the national economy; and as a hand packager, with approximately 45, 000 jobs in the national economy. Id. at 92.

         The ALJ then changed the hypothetical, adding that the hypothetical individual: would be limited to no overhead reaching of the right upper extremity, which is also the dominant arm. Id. at 93. With this additional restriction, Jubreys testified that the hypothetical individual could still perform work as a hospital cleaner, a cook helper, or a hand packager, but could not perform work as a sandblaster. Id. The ALJ then changed the hypothetical again, adding that the hypothetical individual: would be limited to frequent handling and fingering of the left upper extremity as well. Id. at 94. Jubreys testified that the only remaining job previously listed that the hypothetical individual could perform would be the hospital ...


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