United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS TO REMAND AND AFFIRM DECISION
OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge
Jose Ivan Polanco asserts that he is disabled and unable to
work due to a combination of mental impairments. He has
brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
seeking review of the final decision of Nancy A. Berryhill,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, who denied
Polanco's application for Social Security disability
insurance benefits. For the reasons discussed below, I will
deny Polanco's motion to reverse or remand the decision
of the Commissioner (Doc. #19) and grant the
Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc.
to transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See
Doc. #13. Polanco filed an application for Social Security
disability income on November 25, 2014, alleging a disability
beginning on January 1, 2014. Id. at 170.
Polanco's claim was initially denied on January 20, 2015.
Id. at 98. The claim was denied again upon
reconsideration on December 14, 2015. Id. at 105. He
then timely filed a written request for a hearing by an
administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 7, 2016.
Id. at 109.
Louis Bonsangue held a hearing on January 26, 2017.
Id. at 23. Polanco did not attend because he was
hospitalized at the Yale Psychiatric Institute from January 9
until January 28, 2017. Doc. #19-2 at 4. Polanco's
counsel, Meryl Anne Spat, appeared at the hearing, and
vocational officer Silvio S. Reyes testified by phone. Doc.
#13 at 23. After the hearing, the ALJ sent Polanco a notice
to show cause for failure to appear, which he did not return.
Id. at 165. On August 24, 2017, the ALJ issued a
decision concluding that Polanco was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act because, while Polanco is
unable to work due to multiple impairments, “a
substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to
the determination of disability.” Id. at 24.
The Appeals Council affirmed the decision of the ALJ on April
20, 2018. Id. at 2. Polanco then filed this federal
action on June 22, 2018. Doc. #1. In response, the
Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings, asking this
Court to affirm her decision. Doc #23.
qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that he is unable
“to engage in any substantial gainful activity by
reason of any medically determinable physical or mental
impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last
for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, ”
and “the impairment must be ‘of such severity
that [the claimant] 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.'”
Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d
42, 45 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§
423(d)(1)(A), 423(d)(2)(A)). “[W]ork exists in the
national economy when it exists in significant numbers either
in the region where [a claimant] live[s] or in several other
regions of the country, ” and “when there is a
significant number of jobs (in one or more occupations)
having requirements which [a claimant is] able to meet with
[his] physical or mental abilities and vocational
qualifications.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.966(a)-(b);
see also Kennedy v. Astrue, 343 Fed.Appx. 719, 722
(2d Cir. 2009).
evaluate a claimant's disability, and to determine
whether he qualifies for benefits, the agency engages in the
following five-step process:
First, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is
currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Where the
claimant is not, the Commissioner next considers whether the
claimant has a “severe impairment” that
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 that is
listed in the so-called “Listings” in 20 C.F.R.
pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. If the claimant has a listed
impairment, the Commissioner will consider the claimant
disabled without considering vocational factors such as age,
education, and work experience; the Commissioner presumes
that a claimant who is afflicted with a listed impairment is
unable to perform substantial gainful activity. 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 burden then shifts to the
Commissioner to determine whether there is other work which
the claimant could perform.
Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118,
122-23 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal alterations and citation
omitted); see also20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v) (explaining the five-step evaluation
process). In applying this framework, an ALJ can find a
claimant to be disabled or not disabled at a particular step
and can make a decision without proceeding to the next step.
20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden
of proving the case at Steps One through Four; at Step Five,
the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that
there is other work that the claimant can perform.
See McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150
(2d Cir. 2014).
there is medical evidence of an applicant's drug
addiction or alcoholism (DAA), “the
‘disability' inquiry does not end with the
five-step analysis.” Cage, 692 F.3d at 123;
see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(a)
(describing next steps). The Social Security Act was amended
in 1996 to provide that “[a]n individual shall not be
considered . . . disabled . . . if alcoholism or drug
addiction would . . . be a contributing factor material to
the Commissioner's determination that the individual is
disabled.” Senior Citizens' Right to Work Act of
1996, Pub. L. No. 104-121, § 105(a)((1), 110 Stat. 847,
852 (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1382c (a)(3)(J)).
Therefore, if a claimant abuses drugs or alcohol and if the
ALJ finds he or she is disabled, then the ALJ must consider
whether a claimant's DAA is a contributing factor
material to the determination that the claimant is disabled.
The “critical question is whether the SSA would still
find the claimant disabled if she stopped using drugs or
alcohol.” Cage, 692 F.3d at 123 (internal
quotations and alterations omitted) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
here concluded that Polanco was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act. At Step One, the ALJ
determined that Polanco had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity for 12 continuous months, despite a brief
stint of employment from October through December 2015. Doc.
#13 at 26.
Two, the ALJ found that Polanco suffers from the following
severe impairments: depressive disorder, bipolar disorder,
post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder,
schizophrenia, and substance addiction disorder. Id.
Three, the ALJ determined that Polanco's impairments,
including his substance abuse disorder, met the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d)). Id. at
27. This means he is considered per se disabled
without regard to his age, education, and work experience.
the ALJ considered whether, if Polanco stopped abusing
substances, his remaining limitations would be disabling. The
ALJ found that “[d]uring periods of abstinence,
[Polanco's] depressive disorder, bipolar disorder,
post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and
schizophrenia continue to cause more than a minimal
limitation in [his] ability to perform basic work
activities.” Doc. #13 at 31. However, the ALJ found
that, if Polanco stopped using substances, he would not
“have an impairment or combination of impairments that
meet or medically equals any of the impairments listed in 20
CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Ibid.
The ALJ found ...