United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON PENDING MOTIONS
WILLIAM I. GARFINKEL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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).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.
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).
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
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.
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
The ALJ's Decision:
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).
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:
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