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Saad v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 29, 2019

LORILYNN SAAD Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, U.S.A. Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE: THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE [ECF NO. 28] AND THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM [ECF NO. 34]

          KARI A. DOOLEY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Plaintiff, Lorilynn Saad, (“Saad”) brings this administrative appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Saad moves to reverse the Commissioner's decision based on (1) perceived defects in the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) analysis at Step 5 of the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims, (2) the ALJ's purported failure to develop the administrative record, and (3) the weight the ALJ afforded the opinions of three psychologists in his decision The Commissioner opposes each of these claims of error and moves for an order affirming its decision. For the reasons set forth below, Saad's Motion to Reverse is DENIED and the Commissioner's Motion to Affirm is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         It is well-settled that a district court will reverse the decision of the Commissioner 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. Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013). Substantial evidence can support the Commissioner's findings even if there is the potential for drawing more than one conclusion from the record. See Vance v. Berryhill, 860 F.3d 1114, 1120 (8th Cir. 2017). The court can reject the Commissioner's findings of facts “only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise.” Brault v. Social Sec. Admin. 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012). Stated simply, “if there is substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] determination, it must be upheld.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013).

         Factual and Procedural History

         On March 4, 2013, Saad filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Act, alleging an onset date of January 8, 2012. The claim was denied initially on June 27, 2013 and upon reconsideration on August 30, 2013. Thereafter, a hearing was held before an ALJ on March 24, 2015. On July 23, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Saad's application.

         In his decision, the ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims.[1] At Step 1, the ALJ found that Saad had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the claimed onset date. At Step 2, the ALJ determined that Saad had a severe combination of impairments, which included generalized anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, alcohol dependence disorder, recurring left wrist ganglion, and right knee patella bursitis. At Step 3, the ALJ concluded that Saad's impairments, including her substance abuse, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1. At Step 3, the ALJ was also required to determine the severity of Saad's impairments without consideration of the substance abuse disorder.[2] The ALJ concluded that if Saad ended her substance abuse she would continue to have a severe combination of impairments, but any such impairments would not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1. At Step 4, the ALJ concluded that Saad would have a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, subject to certain exceptions and limitations, if she stopped her substance abuse. The ALJ further found that Saad did not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work as a manicurist, even if she ceased her substance abuse. Finally, at Step 5, the ALJ concluded that there would be a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Saad could perform if she stopped her substance abuse. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Saad was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. This appeal followed.

         Discussion

         The ALJ's Analysis at Step 5

         Saad raises two general challenges to the ALJ's analysis at Step 5. First, Saad argues that the ALJ's hypothetical to the vocational expert did not account for several of her limitations and, therefore, was patently defective. Second, Saad argues that the vocational expert's testimony concerning the number of jobs available in the national economy was inaccurate and, therefore, the ALJ erred by relying on his testimony.

         The ALJ's Hypothetical to the Vocational Expert

         Saad argues that the ALJ's hypothetical to the vocational expert was defective in three respects. First, Saad argues that the hypothetical did not account for her recurring left wrist ganglion or her right knee patella bursitis. Second, Saad argues that the hypothetical failed to address the extent to which off-task behavior or absences would be permitted by an employer. Third, and finally, Saad contends that the ALJ's hypothetical to the vocational expert, which assumed that she could perform “simple, routine, repetitious tasks, ” was defective because the ALJ found that she has “moderate difficulties” in concentration, persistence, and pace. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's hypothetical adequately accounted for each of the limitations included in Saad's RFC, which Saad has not challenged, and was therefore not defective. The Court agrees with the Commissioner.

         At Step 2, the ALJ found that Saad had recurring ganglion cysts on her left wrist. After a surgery in March 2013, however, Saad's condition improved. The ALJ acknowledged that Saad re-injured her wrist in a fall in June 2013[3] but noted that she received no significant treatment for her wrist after that accident and had only “infrequent” complaints regarding her wrist after that accident. After June 2013, there was a gap in Saad's orthopedic records until July 2014, when Saad injured her knee in another slip-and-fall incident. The ALJ noted that, although Saad reported continuing pain, her “medical imaging and clinical signs were unimpressive and did not reflect disabling limitations.” Moreover, by September 2014, Saad was complaining of “only intermittent pain, ” “on examination her right knee was stable with full range of motion, ” and she “reported no mechanical issues.” Saad does not challenge any of these findings, which are all consistent with the ALJ's conclusion that Saad is capable of performing light work. The regulations define light work as “lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). Consequently, although the ALJ did not expressly include Saad's wrist and knee impairments in his hypothetical to the vocational expert, the hypothetical did include the restriction to light work and therefore adequately accounted for those impairments.[4]

         Next, Saad faults the ALJ for not addressing permissible off-task behavior or absences in his hypothetical to the vocational expert. As the Commissioner correctly observes, however, the ALJ did not make any finding that Saad would be off-task or absent to a significant extent, and Saad has not challenged the omission of this limitation ...


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