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Wilson v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 25, 2019




         Plaintiff 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.

         For the 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 GRANTED.


         The 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.[2] [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].

         On 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].

         On May 11, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby rendering ALJ Kuperstein's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [Tr. 1-5].

         Plaintiff, represented by counsel, timely filed this action for review and moves to reverse and/or remand the Commissioner's decision.


         The 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).

         The 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).

         “[T]he 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 omitted).

         It is 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).


         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits.

         To be 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 “severe”).[3]

         There 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 fifth steps:

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.


         “Through 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).

         “In 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).


         Following 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].

         At step 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].

         At step 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].

         Before 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.

[Tr. 18].

         At step 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].

         The ALJ 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].

         V. ...

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