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Smith v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 27, 2019

JAMES LAURENCE SMITH, 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 Supplemental Security Income [“SSI”] and Social Security Disability Insurance [“SSDI”] benefits.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On or about November 21, 2013, the plaintiff filed an application for SSDI benefits claiming that he has been disabled since November 1, 2011, due to migraine headaches and depression. (Doc. No. 16 (Certified Transcript of Administrative Proceedings, dated April 14, 2018 [“Tr.”]) 74, 93). The Commissioner denied the plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 74-91, 93-109). On December 22, 2014, the plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge [“ALJ”] (Tr. 121-22). The plaintiff filed an application for SSI on December 21, 2015. (Tr. 200-208). On May 12, 2016, a hearing was held before ALJ Alexander Peter Borré, at which the plaintiff and a vocational expert, Renee B. Jubrey, testified. (Tr. 43-73; see Tr. 19-42, 145-71, 285-87). On June 14, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying the plaintiff's claim for benefits. (Tr. 19-42). On August 4, 2016, the plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision (Tr. 182-83), and on October 27, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5).

         The plaintiff filed his complaint in this pending action on December 28, 2017. (Doc. No. 1). On March 13, 2018, the parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge, and the case was reassigned to Magistrate Judge Joan G. Margolis. (Doc. No. 12). The case was transferred to this Magistrate Judge on May 1, 2018. (Doc. No. 15). On May 8, 2018, the defendant filed her Answer and Certified Administrative Transcript, dated April 4, 2018. (Doc. No. 16). On July 9, 2018, the plaintiff filed his Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 18), with a stipulation of facts (Doc. No. 18-1), brief in support (Doc. No. 18-2 [Pl.'s Mem.]), and accompanying exhibits (Doc. Nos. 18-3-18-6).[2] On September 5, 2018, the defendant filed her Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 21), with brief in support. (Doc. No. 21-1 [Def.'s Mem.]).

         For the reasons stated below, the plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 18) is GRANTED, and the defendant's Motion to Affirm (Doc. No. 21) is DENIED.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[3]

         The Court presumes the parties' familiarity with the plaintiff's medical history, which is thoroughly discussed in the Joint Stipulation of Facts (Doc. No. 18-2). Though the Court has reviewed the entirety of the medical record, it cites only the portions of the record that are necessary to explain this decision.

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Following the five-step evaluation process, [4] the ALJ found that the plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2014, and that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of November 1, 2011. (Tr. 24, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971, et seq.). The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff had the following severe impairments: migraines, asthma, obesity, and depression.[5] (Tr. 24, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). At step three, the ALJ concluded that 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. 21, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). The ALJ found that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity [“RFC”] to perform medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that he was “limited to simple, repetitive tasks in an environment requiring no more than occasional public contact”; “must avoid concentrated exposure to dusts, gases, fumes, and odors”; could tolerate “moderate noise”; could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could not tolerate exposure to hazards; could occasionally climb ramps and stairs; and could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (Tr. 28). At step four, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 33, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965). At step five, after considering the plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there were significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 35, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)). 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 November 1, 2011, through the date of his decision.[6] (Tr. 31, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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).

         V. DISCUSSION

         In this appeal, the plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in several respects. First, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ “[m]isconstrued the [e]vidence” regarding the plaintiff's migraine headaches. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1-9). Second, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to develop the record. (Pl.'s Mem. at 9-16). Third, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ's analysis at steps two and three of the sequential evaluation process was “deficient.” (Pl.'s Mem. at 17-20). Fourth, the plaintiff claims that the ALJ's step five analysis was “defective.” (Pl.'s Mem. at 20-26). Finally, the plaintiff maintains that the ALJ failed to address adequately the plaintiff's subjective ...


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