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Laflamme v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 24, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Kimberly Ann Laflamme's, applications for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). It is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]Plaintiff now moves for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”), or in the alternative, an order remanding her case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 19]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision. [Doc. # 23]. After careful consideration of the arguments raised by both parties, and thorough review of the administrative record, the Court reverses the decision of the Commissioner and remands the matter for additional proceedings.


         “A district court reviewing a final . . . decision [of the Commissioner of Social Security] pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is performing an appellate function.” Zambrana v. Califano, 651 F.2d 842 (2d Cir. 1981). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, [are] conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accordingly, the district court may not make a de novo determination of whether a plaintiff is disabled in reviewing a denial of disability benefits. Id.; Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the court's function is to first ascertain whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal principles in reaching her conclusion, and then whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987). Therefore, absent legal error, a decision of the Commissioner cannot be set aside if it is supported by substantial evidence. Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It must be “more than a scintilla or touch of proof here and there in the record.” Williams, 859 F.2d at 258. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, that decision will be sustained, even where there may also be substantial evidence to support the plaintiff's contrary position. Schauer v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 55, 57 (2d Cir. 1982).


         a. Facts

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on November 24, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of December 1, 2013. Her claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On October 3, 2016, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Ellen Parker Bush (the “ALJ”). Plaintiff appeared with an attorney. Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. On February 17, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. On February 7, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was forty-three years old on the alleged disability onset date. She has a ninth-grade education. She has past work experience as a food server and as a companion. She is alleging disability based on mental impairments.

         Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Joint Stipulation of Facts filed by the parties. [Doc. # 20]. The Court adopts this stipulation and incorporates it by reference herein.

         b. The ALJ's Decision:

         The Commissioner must follow a sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims. The five steps of this process are as follows: (1) the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which limits his or her mental or physical ability to do basic work activities; (3) if the claimant has a “severe impairment, ” the Commissioner must ask whether, based solely on the medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which “meets or equals” an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations (the Listings). If so, and it meets the durational requirements, the Commissioner will consider the claimant disabled, without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; (4) if not, the Commissioner then asks whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he or she has the residual functional capacity to perform his or her past work; and (5) if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work, the Commissioner then determines whether there is other work in the national economy which the claimant can perform. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, while the Commissioner bears the burden of proof on the final step. McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 149 (2d Cir. 2014).

         In this case, at Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 15). At Step Two, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: depression; posttraumatic stress disorder; and generalized anxiety disorder. (Id.). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 16). In making this finding, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has no limitations in understanding, remembering or applying information; moderate limitations in interacting with others; moderate limitations in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and moderate limitations in adapting or managing oneself. (R. 16-17). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[2]:

Plaintiff can perform a full range of work at all exertion levels with the following nonexertional limitations: she can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks and can maintain attention and concentration for two-hour blocks. She can tolerate brief interactions with supervisors and co-workers, but cannot interact with the public. She can adapt to ordinary changes in work tasks.

(R. 17-21). In making this RFC assessment, the ALJ considered the opinion of non-examining state agency psychiatrist Dr. Hill, who opined, on November 23, 2015, that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and one or two repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. (R. 123). Dr. Hill further opined that Plaintiff would have no limitations regarding understanding and memory. (R. 124). He found Plaintiff would be moderately limited in carrying out detailed instructions, maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods, and working in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them. (R. 125). Dr. Hill indicated that, “when abstinent, ” Plaintiff could remember and carry out simple instructions, keep appointments, maintain attention and concentration for at least two hours, and complete simple tasks consistently when motivated, but would be occasionally distracted by residual side effects, limiting her ability to carry out detailed instructions. (Id.). In addition, Dr. Hill found Plaintiff would be moderately limited in interacting with the general public, and that she may feel uncomfortable in certain settings, but can function and work alone and relate to work staff when motivated. (Id.). He also found that Plaintiff would ...

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