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Clark v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 3, 2019

STEVEN C. CLARK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE: PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE (ECF NO. 17) AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO AFFIRM (ECF NO. 18)

          KARI A. DOOLEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Preliminary Statement

         Plaintiff Steven C. Clark, proceeding pro se, [1] brings this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). He appeals the Defendant Commissioner's decision denying him Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”) based upon a finding that he is not “disabled” under the Act. He seeks an order from this Court reversing the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 17.) The Commissioner, on the other hand, asks this Court to affirm the decision. (ECF No. 18.) For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's motion is DENIED. The Defendant Commissioner's motion is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         The Plaintiff sought a determination that he was disabled as of March 18, 2013, the purported date of onset, through the date of the hearing. 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 [he] is not only unable to do [his] previous work but cannot, considering [hi] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy .... ” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The 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 can perform. See McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         The 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”).

         The ALJ's Decision

         At step one, although there was some evidence in the record that the Plaintiff had worked after the onset date, the ALJ gave him the benefit of the doubt and determined that any work activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity after March 18, 2013. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had severe impairments, specifically, osteoarthritis and allied disorders, knee pain/arthritis, and disorder of muscle, ligament, and fascia. 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. Specifically, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff did not meet listing 1.02, which addresses major joint dysfunction, in that the Plaintiff did not establish that he is unable to ambulate effectively or unable to perform fine and gross movements effectively. At step four, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had an RFC “to perform light work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.967(b), “except sit and stand at his job at his leisure, .… [and] the individual should never climb ramps and stairs, never climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds, only occasionally balance, never stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl, only occasionally handle and finger bilaterally, … only occasionally use his hands to grab or use his fingers to do fine manipulation.” In view of these findings, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was “unable to perform any past relevant work.” At step five, the ALJ, crediting the testimony of the vocational expert, determined that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled on March 18, 2013, or at any time thereafter, through the date of the hearing.

         This appeal followed. The Plaintiff asserts that he met his burden at each stage of the sequential analysis and identifies those parts of the record which support his disability claim. At its core, the Plaintiff's argument is a factual disagreement with the ALJ's findings and determination that the Plaintiff is not disabled. As such, the Court construes his claim as one challenging the existence of substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's findings, and the Court examines the ALJ decision under the standards set forth above.

         Discussion

         Because, at step one, the ALJ gave the Plaintiff the benefit of the doubt and determined that he had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity after the onset date, the Plaintiff's argument on this issue need not be addressed.

         At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had several severe impairments, to include osteoarthritis and related disorders, knee pain/arthritis, disorder of muscle, ligament and fascia. The Plaintiff asserts, however, that he also suffers from dyspnea. The Plaintiff had an episode of dyspnea, or shortness of breath, with chest pain in June 2011, almost two years before the onset date. He was treated in the emergency room at UConn Health Center. The records reflect that his chest examination was normal; his respiration was normal; and he had normal strength and range of motion in his extremities. A CT scan of the chest also revealed normal results. The Plaintiff was discharged with a diagnosis of dyspnea nonspecific and chest pain. No. underlying condition was revealed, and he was provided no additional treatment recommendations other than to follow up with his primary care physician if the symptoms returned. The ALJ's determination not to include dyspnea as an impairment, let alone a severe impairment, is therefore supported by substantial evidence.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet the 1.02 listing criteria for major joint dysfunction insofar as the Plaintiff failed to establish that he is unable to ambulate effectively. The Plaintiff asserts that he has osteoarthritis in his knees; that he saw Dr. Collins for “not being able to walk properly”; and that Dr. Collins prescribed a cane. The Plaintiff simply disagrees with the ALJ as ...


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