United States District Court, D. Connecticut
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE: PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO
REVERSE OR REMAND (ECF NO. 20) AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO
AFFIRM (ECF NO. 28)
A. DOOLEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Plaintiff, Bernadine Jordan, brings this appeal pursuant to
42 U.S.C. §405(g). She appeals the Defendant
Commissioner's decision denying her disabled widow's
benefits (“DWB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) payments under Title XVI of the Social
Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”), based upon
a finding that she is not “disabled” under the
Act. She seeks an order of this Court reversing the
Commissioner's decision on the grounds that the
Commission erred as a matter of law and that the
Commissioner's findings are not supported by substantial
evidence in the record. Alternatively, she seeks a remand to
the Commissioner for further proceedings. The Commissioner,
on the other hand, avers that the Commissioner's findings
are supported by substantial evidence in the record and were
made using the correct legal standards. She asks this Court
to affirm the decision.
reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's motion is
GRANTED insofar as the case is remanded for rehearing
pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The
Defendant Commissioner's motion is DENIED.
Plaintiff sought a determination that she was disabled as of
June 28, 2011, the purported date of onset, through the date
of the hearing on her application. A person is
“disabled” under the Act if that person is unable
to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by
reason of any medically determinable physical or mental
impairment which can be expected to result in death or which
has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period
of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(a). A physical or mental impairment is one that
“results from anatomical, physiological, or
psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3). In addition, a
claimant must establish that his “physical or mental
impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is
not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot,
considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy ….” 42 U.S.C. §
Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis
to which an ALJ must adhere when evaluating disability
claims. See 20 C.F.R. 404.1520. In brief, the five
steps are as follows: (1) the Commissioner determines whether
the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity; (2) if not, the Commissioner determines whether the
claimant has a “severe impairment” which limits
his or her mental or physical ability to do basic work
activities; (3) if such a “severe impairment” is
established, the Commissioner next determines whether the
medical evidence establishes that the claimant's
impairment “meets or equals” an impairment listed
in Appendix 1 of the regulations; (4) if the claimant does
not establish the “meets or equals” requirement,
the Commissioner must then determine the claimant's
residual functional capacity (hereinafter “RFC”)
to perform his or her past work; and (5) if the claimant is
unable to perform his or her past work, the Commissioner must
next determine whether there is other work in the national
economy which the claimant can perform. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The claimant bears the burden of proof
with respect to steps one through four. See Burgess v.
Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2008). The
Commissioner bears the burden as to step five, that is,
finding the existence of work in the national economy that
the claimant is capable of performing. McIntyre v.
Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).
fourth sentence of Section 405(g) of the Act provides that a
“[c]ourt shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings
and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming,
modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner...,
with or without remanding the case for a rehearing.” 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). It is well-settled that the district
court will reverse an ALJ's decision only when it is
based upon legal error or when it is not supported by
substantial evidence in the record. See Beauvoir v.
Chater, 104 F.3d 1432, 1433 (2d Cir. 1997); see
also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the
Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported
by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . .”).
“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.”
Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012)
(internal quotations omitted). The Court does not inquire as
to whether the record might also support the Plaintiff's
claims, but only whether there is substantial evidence to
support the Commissioner's decision. See Selian v.
Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (“If
there is substantial evidence to support the [agency's]
determination, it must be upheld”).
before the Court undertakes such analysis, it “must
first be satisfied that the claimant has had a full hearing
under the regulations and in accordance with the beneficent
purposes of the Social Security Act.'” Cruz v.
Barnhart, 343 F.Supp.2d 218, 220 (S.D.N.Y. 2004)
(quoting Cruz v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 8, 11 (2d Cir.
1990). “Because a hearing on disability benefits is a
non-adversarial proceeding, the ALJ generally has an
affirmative obligation to develop the administrative
record.” Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 47 (2d
Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted); see also Lamay
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 508-09 (2d
Cir. 2009) (“[S]ocial security hearings are not (or at
least are not meant to be) adversarial in nature.”).
“It is the Commissioner's affirmative
responsibility to develop the record in such a way as to
ensure a full and fair hearing.” Cruz v.
Barnhart, 343 F.Supp.2d 218, 220 (S.D.N.Y. 2004).
“When a record is incomplete, a decision based thereon
is not supported by substantial evidence.” Beutel
v. Berryhill, No. 3:17CV01193(SALM), 2018 WL 3218662, at
*10 (D. Conn. July 2, 2018) (citing Pratts v.
Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 38 (2d Cir. 1996)).
the law is clear that “where the administrative record
contains gaps, remand to the Commissioner for further
development of the evidence is appropriate. And when
‘further findings would so plainly help to assure the
proper disposition of [the] claim, … remand is
particularly appropriate.'” Butts v.
Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 385 (2d Cir. 2004), as
amended on reh'g in part, 416 F.3d 101 (2d Cir.
2005) (quoting Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 83 (2d
Cir. 1999)). Remand is also appropriate where the Court is
“‘unable to fathom the ALJ's rationale in
relation to the evidence in the record' without
‘further findings or clearer explanation for the
decision.'” Pratts, 94 F.3d at 39 (quoting
Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 469 (2d Cir.
one, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not been
engaged in substantial gainful activity since the claimed
onset date, June 28, 2011. At step two, the ALJ found that
the Plaintiff had severe impairments, specifically, anxiety,
depression, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine,
and alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana abuse. The ALJ rejected
the claim that the Plaintiff's borderline intellectual
functioning was severe. At step three, the ALJ found that the
Plaintiff did not establish an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
the listed impairments in the regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. At step four, the ALJ determined
that the Plaintiff had an RFC to perform “light
work” as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c)
and 416.967(c). The ALJ placed limitations on this
determination, however, finding that the Plaintiff was
limited to, inter alia, frequent climbing of
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequent kneeling, crouching,
and crawling; simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; only
occasional contact with coworkers; and no contact with the
public. The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had no past
relevant work. At step five, crediting the testimony of the
vocational expert, the ALJ determined that there are a
significant number of jobs in the national economy that the
Plaintiff could perform even with the limitations identified
above. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Plaintiff was not
disabled as of June 28, 2011, or at any time thereafter
through the date of the hearing.
the ALJ's decision articulated his reasons and the
relevant portion of the record on which he relied in reaching
his decision, upon review, the Court finds that the record
upon which his decision was based is incomplete and
inadequate, and the matter must be remanded for the purpose
of further developing the record. In short, the Court is not
satisfied that the Plaintiff received a full and fair
hearing. See Rose v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 202
F.Supp.3d 231, 239 (“A remand by the court for further
proceedings is appropriate ...