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Torres v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 29, 2019



          Donna F. Martinez United States Magistrate Judge.

         The plaintiff, Carmelita Herminia Torres, seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The plaintiff asks the court to reverse the Commissioner's decision or, alternatively, remand for a rehearing. (Doc. #19.) The Commissioner, in turn, seeks an order affirming the decision. (Doc. #20.) For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiff's motion is granted and the defendant's motion is denied.[1]

         I. Administrative Proceedings

         On April 4, 2013, the plaintiff filed applications alleging that she had been disabled since October 1, 2012. (R.[2] at 174-180.) The plaintiff's applications were denied initially on June 3, 2013, and upon reconsideration. She requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 110.) On May 20, 2015, a hearing was held at which the plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified. (R. at 24-63.) On July 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying the plaintiff's claims. (R. at 7-23.) On February 22, 2017, the Appeals Council declined review, making the ALJ's decision final. (R. at 1-4.) This action followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         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). In determining whether the ALJ's findings "are supported by substantial evidence, 'the reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn.'" Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting Mongeur v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1033, 1038 (2d Cir. 1983)). "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. The ALJ's Decision

         Following the five-step evaluation process, at step one, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of October 1, 2012. (R. at 13.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff had a severe impairment of seronegative rheumatoid arthritis. (Id.) The ALJ found that the plaintiff's hyperthyroidism, torticollis, cervical strain and endometriosis were not severe impairments because they did not meet the twelve month “durational requirement.” As to the plaintiff's claims that she suffered from lupus and Jaccoud's arthritis, the ALJ stated that the record did not reflect that she had been diagnosed with these impairments. (R. at 13). The ALJ found that the plaintiff's depression was not a severe medical impairment.

         At step three, the ALJ found that the plaintiff did not have an impairment, either alone or in combination, that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. (R. at 15.) In particular, the ALJ considered listing 14.09, inflammatory arthritis, and observed that no treating or examining physician had provided any opinion or suggested any findings to demonstrate that the severity of the plaintiff's impairment met or medically equaled the criterial of this or any other listed impairment. (Id.)

         The ALJ next determined that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[3] to perform medium work[4] as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) and § 416.967(c), except that she can engage in frequent handling and fingering with the bilateral upper extremities. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a warehouse worker and a child care monitor. (R. at 17-19.) The ALJ also made "alternative findings for step five to the sequential evaluation process.” (R. at 18-19). Specifically, she found that, given the plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, ...

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