United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS
W. EGINTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
William Wilson brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§405(g), seeking review of a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title
II Social Security, 42 U.S.C. §401 et seq. (“the
Act”). Plaintiff has moved to reverse or remand the
case for a rehearing. The Commissioner has moved to affirm.
reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion for Order
Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner or in the
Alternative Motion for Remand for a Hearing [Doc.
#20] is DENIED. Defendant's
Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the
Commissioner [Doc. #21] is
procedural history of this case is not disputed. Plaintiff
filed an application for DIB on August 26, 2013, alleging
disability as of July 20, 2012. [Certified Transcript of the
Record, Compiled on September 26, 2018, Doc. #17 (hereinafter
“Tr.”) 11, 192-95]. Plaintiff alleged disability
due to “back surgeries, chipped bones rubbing against
nerves, back fusion, back fusion split due to accident, scar
tissue in neck, numbness in hands and feet, replaced 4 discs
in neck.” [Tr. 76]. His Title II claim was denied
initially on March 4, 2014, and on reconsideration on May 8,
2014. [Tr. 11, 75-92, 93-109]. Plaintiff filed a timely
request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) on August 22, 2016. [Tr. 11, 128-29].
September 8, 2017, Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Matthew Kuperstein held a hearing, at
which plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. [Tr.
30-74]. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Verna Arevalo
also testified at the hearing. [Tr. 64-73]. On November 7,
2017, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled, and
denied her claim. [Tr. 8-29]. Plaintiff filed a timely
request for review of the hearing decision on November 27,
2017. [Tr. 189-91].
11, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby
rendering ALJ Kuperstein's decision the final decision of
the Commissioner. [Tr. 1-5].
represented by counsel, timely filed this action for review
and moves to reverse and/or remand the Commissioner's
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. 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. 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.”). “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) (alteration added) (citation omitted). 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) (citation omitted). “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, Civil Action No. 3:13-CV-00073(JCH), 2014 WL
1304715, at *6 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (internal citations
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) (citations and
internal quotation marks omitted). “[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)(citations omitted).
SSA LEGAL STANDARD
the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a
disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits.
considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to
benefits, Mr. Wilson must demonstrate that he 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 h[is 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); see also 20
C.F.R. §404.1520(c) (requiring that the impairment
“significantly limit[ ] ... physical or mental ability
to do basic work activities” to be considered
is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a
person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4). In
the Second Circuit, the test is described as follows:
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 his residual functional
capacity.” Gonzalez ex rel. Guzman v. Dep't of
Health and Human Serv., 360 Fed.Appx. 240, 243 (2d Cir.
2010) (citing 68 Fed. Reg. 51155 (Aug. 26, 2003));
Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009)
(per curiam)). “Residual functional capacity” 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), 416.945(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) (citation omitted).
“[E]ligibility 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. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
the above-described five step evaluation process, ALJ
Kuperstein concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under
the Social Security Act. [Tr. 8-29]. At step one, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since July 20, 2012, the alleged onset date, through
his date last insured, December 31, 2017. [Tr. 14].
two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had degenerative disc
disease of the cervical and lumbar spine status-post surgical
treatment, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, and
depression, all of which are severe impairments under the Act
and regulations. [Tr. 14].
three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either
alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the
severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt.
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R.
§§404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). [Tr. 15].
The ALJ specifically considered Listing 1.04 (disorders of
the spine); 1.02B (major dysfunction of a joint); 11.14A
(peripheral neuropathy); and 12.04 (depressive, bipolar and
related disorders). [Tr. 15-17]. The ALJ also conducted a
psychiatric review technique and found that plaintiff had a
moderate limitation in understanding, remembering, or
applying information; interacting with others; concentration,
persistence or pace; and adapting or managing oneself. [Tr.
16-17]. The ALJ found that claimant “does not rely, on
an ongoing basis, upon medical treatment, mental health
therapy, psychosocial supports, or a highly structured
environment to diminish the signs and symptoms of his mental
disorder.” [Tr. 17].
moving on to step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the
residual functional capacity (RFC) to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he
is further limited to only occasional climbing of ramps or
stairs and never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; to
only occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or
crawling; to only frequent but not constant fingering with
both upper extremities; to needing to be able to avoid
concentrated exposure to vibration; to work that involves
understanding and remembering simple instructions in a
nonpublic work setting where the tasks are routine and
repetitive in a setting that does not require strict
adherence to time or production quotas.
four, the ALJ found plaintiff was unable to perform any past
relevant work as a tow truck driver. [Tr. 23]. At step five,
after considering plaintiff's age, education, work
experience and RFC, the ALJ found that jobs existed in
significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff
could perform. [Tr. 24-25].
concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability from
July 20, 2012, the alleged onset date of disability, November
7, 2017, the date of the decision. [Tr. 25].