United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS
SARAH A. L. MERRIAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Carmen Milagros Velazquez (“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 applications for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). Plaintiff has moved to reverse or remand
the Commissioner's decision. [Doc. #20]. Defendant has
filed a cross-motion seeking an order affirming the decision
of the Commissioner. [Doc. #27].
reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or
Remand an Administrative Agency Decision [Doc.
#20] is DENIED, and defendant's
Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the
Commissioner [Doc. #27] is
PROCEDURAL HISTORY 
filed concurrent applications for DIB and SSI on August 13,
2015, alleging disability beginning July 2, 2015. See
Certified Transcript of the Administrative Record, Doc. #12,
compiled on October 2, 2018, (hereinafter “Tr.”)
at 249-63. Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to
October 17, 2016. See Tr. 276. Plaintiff's applications
were denied initially on October 15, 2015, see Tr. 117-39,
and upon reconsideration on January 26, 2016. See Tr. 138-54.
12, 2017, plaintiff, represented by Attorney Danielle Choi,
appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) Deirdre R. Horton. See generally
Tr. 32-55. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Warren Maxim
also appeared and testified by telephone at the
administrative hearing. See Tr. 51-54; see also Tr. 346-50.
On August 8, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision.
See Tr. 13-31. On June 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied
plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision,
thereby making the ALJ's August 8, 2017, decision the
final decision of the Commissioner. See Tr. 1-4. The case is
now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
timely filed this action for review and now moves to reverse
the decision of the Commissioner and to remand this matter
for further administrative proceedings. [Doc. #20]. On
appeal, plaintiff argues: (1) “The ALJ's residual
functional capacity finding was the product of legal error
and was unsupported by substantial evidence[;]” and (2)
“The ALJ's credibility determination was
unsupported by substantial evidence.” Doc. #20-1 at 1,
2, 8. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the
ALJ did not err as contended, and that her decision is
supported by substantial evidence.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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).
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,
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).
some of the Regulations cited in this decision, particularly
those applicable to the review of medical source evidence,
were amended effective March 27, 2017. Those “new
regulations apply only to claims filed on or after March 27,
2017.” Smith v. Comm'r, 731 Fed.Appx. 28,
30 n.1 (2d Cir. 2018) (summary order). Where a
plaintiff's claim for benefits was filed prior to March
27, 2017, “the Court reviews the ALJ's decision
under the earlier regulations[.]” Rodriguez v.
Colvin, No. 3:15CV1723(DFM), 2018 WL 4204436, at *4 n.6
(D. Conn. Sept. 4, 2018); White v. Comm'r, No.
17CV4524(JS), 2018 WL 4783974, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30,
2018) (“While the Act was amended effective March 27,
2017, the Court reviews the ALJ's decision under the
earlier regulations because the Plaintiff's application
was filed before the new regulations went into effect.”
SSA LEGAL STANDARD
the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a
disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42
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), 416.920(c) (requiring that the
impairment “significantly limit ... physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities” to be
considered “severe” (alterations added)).
is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a
person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520,
416.920. In the Second Circuit, the test is described as
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
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.
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 Residual Functional Capacity
(“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),
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).
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)).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
the above-described evaluation process, the ALJ concluded
that plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as
defined in the Social Security Act, from October 17, 2016,
the amended alleged onset date, through the date of”
her decision, August 8, 2017. Tr. 25. At step one, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the amended alleged onset date of October 17,
2016. See Tr. 18. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff
had the severe impairments of ischemic heart disease and
connective tissue disease. See Tr. 19. The ALJ found
plaintiff's “vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia and
status post hysterectomy” to be non-severe
impairments. See id.
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. 20. The ALJ specifically
considered Listings 4.04 (ischemic heart disease) and 14.06
(undifferentiated and mixed connective tissue disease). See
The ALJ next found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)
except occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes,
or scaffolds with frequent balancing and occasional stooping,
kneeling, crouching, and crawling. She must avoid even
moderate exposures to respiratory irritants such as dusts,
fumes, gases, etc. She is limited to frequent handling and
Id. At step four, the ALJ concluded: “The
claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as an
account reconciliation clerk and a cashier. This work does
not require the performance of work-related activities
precluded by the claimant's residual functional
capacity[.]” Tr. 24. Thus, the ALJ determined that
plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined
in the Social Security Act, from October 17, 2016, the
amended alleged onset date, through the date of [her]
decision[.]” Tr. 25.
asserts that the ALJ erred in assessing her RFC and
credibility. The Court addresses each argument in turn.
Residual Functional Capacity Determination
raises many arguments in support of the assertion that
“[t]he ALJ's residual functional capacity finding
was the product of legal error and was unsupported by
substantial evidence.” Doc. #20-1 at 3. Defendant,
addressing each of those arguments, responds that ...