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Velez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 3, 2019

GLADYS FELICIANO VELEZ
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting COMMISSIONER, Social Security ADMINISTRATION

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS

          HON. SARAH A. L. MERRIAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Gladys Feliciano Velez (“plaintiff”), brings this appeal under §205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner” or “defendant”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Act. Plaintiff has moved for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner. [Doc. #24]. Defendant has filed a cross-motion seeking an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner. [Doc. #26].

         For the reasons set forth below, defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #26] is GRANTED, and plaintiff's Motion for Order Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #24] is DENIED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY [1]

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on January 14, 2015, alleging disability beginning January 1, 1999. See Certified Transcript of the Administrative Record, Doc. #19, compiled on August 9, 2018, (hereinafter “Tr.”) at 220-26. Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to June 30, 2013. See Tr. 42.[2]Plaintiff's application was denied initially on June 30, 2015, see Tr. 95-98, and upon reconsideration on November 5, 2015, see Tr. 101-03.

         Following the denial of plaintiff's application, on October 5, 2017, plaintiff, represented by Attorney Kerin M. Woods, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ryan A. Alger. See Tr. 38-60.[3] Plaintiff testified with the assistance of a Spanish-language interpreter. See Tr. 40. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Hank Lerner also testified at the hearing. See Tr. 55-59; see also Tr. 408-13. On November 1, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. See Tr. 9-30. On May 10, 2018, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See Tr. 1-8. The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         Plaintiff timely filed this action for review. See Doc. #1. She now moves to reverse the Commissioner's decision. [Doc. #24]. On appeal, plaintiff argues:

1. The ALJ erred when determining plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”);
2. The ALJ erred when assessing plaintiff's credibility; and
3. The ALJ's step four findings are not supported by substantial evidence.[4]

See generally Doc. #24-1. As set forth below, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and there is no reversible error.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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. Second, the Court must decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence. See Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). 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) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The reviewing court's responsibility is to ensure that a claim has been fairly evaluated by the ALJ. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983) (citation omitted).

         The Court does not reach the second stage of review - evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion - if the Court determines that the ALJ failed to apply the law correctly. See Norman v. Astrue, 912 F.Supp.2d 33, 70 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (“The Court first reviews the Commissioner's decision for compliance with the correct legal standards; only then does it determine whether the Commissioner's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.” (citing Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999))). “Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.” Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987).

         “[T]he crucial factors in any determination must be set forth with sufficient specificity to enable [a reviewing court] to decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence.” Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984) (alterations added) (citing Treadwell v. Schweiker, 698 F.2d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1983)). The ALJ is free to accept or reject the testimony of any witness, but a “finding that the witness is not credible must nevertheless be set forth with sufficient specificity to permit intelligible plenary review of the record.” Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 260-61 (2d Cir. 1988) (citing Carroll v. Sec. Health and Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 643 (2d Cir. 1983)). “Moreover, when a finding is potentially dispositive on the issue of disability, there must be enough discussion to enable a reviewing court to determine whether substantial evidence exists to support that finding.” Johnston v. Colvin, No. 3:13CV00073(JCH), 2014 WL 1304715, at *6 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (citing Peoples v. Shalala, No. 92CV4113, 1994 WL 621922, at *4 (N.D.Ill. Nov. 4, 1994)).

         It is important to note that in reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court's role is not to start from scratch. “In reviewing a final decision of the SSA, this Court is limited to determining whether the SSA's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and were based on a correct legal standard.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting Lamay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 507 (2d Cir. 2009)). “[W]hether there is substantial evidence supporting the appellant's view is not the question here; rather, we must decide whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.” Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013) (summary order) (citations omitted)

         III. SSA LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1).

         To be considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to benefits, plaintiff must demonstrate that she is unable to work after a date specified “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). Such impairment or impairments must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his 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); 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c) (requiring that the impairment “significantly limit[] ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” to be considered “severe” (alterations added)).

         There is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. In the Second Circuit, the test is described as follows:

First, the Secretary considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the Secretary 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 Secretary will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the Secretary presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a “listed” impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity.

Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam). If and only if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the Commissioner engages in the fourth and fifth steps:

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 Secretary then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform. Under the cases previously discussed, the claimant bears the burden of proof as to the first four steps, while the Secretary must prove the final one.

Id.

         “Through the fourth step, the claimant carries the burdens of production and persuasion, but if the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, there is a limited shift in the burden of proof and the Commissioner is obligated to demonstrate that jobs exist in the national or local economies that the claimant can perform given [her] residual functional capacity.” Gonzalez ex rel. Guzman v. Dep't of Health and Human Serv., 360 Fed.Appx. 240, 243 (2d Cir. 2010) (alteration added) (citing 68 Fed. Reg. 51155 (Aug. 26, 2003)); Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam)). The RFC is what a person is still capable of doing despite limitations resulting from her physical and mental impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1545(a)(1).

         “In assessing disability, factors to be considered are (1) the objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses or medical opinions based on such facts; (3) subjective evidence of pain or disability testified to by the claimant or others; and (4) the claimant's educational background, age, and work experience.” Bastien v. Califano, 572 F.2d 908, 912 (2d Cir. 1978). “[E]ligibility for benefits is to be determined in light of the fact that ‘the Social Security Act is a remedial statute to be broadly construed and liberally applied.'” Id. (quoting Haberman v. Finch, 418 F.2d 664, 667 (2d Cir. 1969)).

         IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Following the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded that since the amended alleged onset date of June 30, 2013, through the date of his decision, plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. See Tr. 23. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of June 30, 2013. See Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of “fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, and osteoarthritis of her left shoulder[.]” Id. The ALJ found plaintiff also suffered from the following non-severe impairments: breast fibrosclerosis; hypertension; asthma; diverticulosis; “gastoesophageal reflux disease”; and cataracts. See Tr. 17-18.

         At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. See Tr. 18-19. The ALJ specifically considered listings 1.04 (disorders of the spine) and 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint). See Id. The ALJ considered plaintiff's fibromyalgia “under the requirements of SSR 12-2p.” Tr. 19.

The ALJ next found plaintiff had the RFC
to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolding, perform no overhead work with her bilateral upper extremities, and perform no work around unprotected heights.

Id. At step four, the ALJ concluded: “The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a Social Worker. This work does not require performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565).” Tr. 23. Thus, the ALJ determined that plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 30, 2013, through the date of []his decision[.]” Id.

         V. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff raises several arguments in support of reversal or remand. See generally Doc. ...


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