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Castro v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 11, 2019

GINA CASTRO, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Gina Castro's, application 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. # 16]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming her decision. [Doc. # 18]. This case was a close call; in the final analysis, however, 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 her DIB and SSI applications on October 10, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of November 5, 2012. Her claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On January 6, 2016, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Ronald J. Thomas (“the ALJ”). Plaintiff, who appeared pro se, and a vocational expert (“VE”) provided testimony at the hearing. On June 17, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. On July 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff completed through the tenth grade in school. (R. 57). She cannot communicate in English. (R. 54). She was forty-seven years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 56). Plaintiff last worked in February 2013 as a machine operator. (R. 58). She has additional past work experience as a welding machine feeder, assembler, and daycare worker. (R. 73). Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Joint Stipulation of Facts filed by the parties. [Doc. # 16-2]. 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).

         Here, at Step One, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 36). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia and depression. (Id.). The ALJ determined that diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis are nonsevere impairments. (R. 36-37). At Step Three, the ALJ found Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 37). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[2]:

Plaintiff can perform light work except she can occasionally twist, kneel, crawl, bend, squat, balance, and climb. She can occasionally interact with co-workers, the general public, and supervisors.

(R. 38). At Step Four, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE to find that Plaintiff can perform past relevant work. (R. 43). In the alternative, at Step Five, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (R. 44). Specifically, the VE testified that a person with Plaintiff's vocational factors and the assessed RFC can perform the positions of buffing ...

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