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Martucci v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 27, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security[1], Defendant.



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Mary Martucci'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).[2] 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. # 18]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming his decision. [Doc. # 21]. After careful consideration of the arguments raised by both parties, and thorough review of the administrative record, the Court grants the Commissioner's motion to affirm.


         “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 his 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.” Id. 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 March 30, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of September 15, 2008. Her date last insured is June 30, 2012. Plaintiff's claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On May 6, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Ronald J. Thomas (“the ALJ”). On June 27, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff appealed to this court. On November 1, 2016, United States Magistrate Judge Margolis remanded the matter to the Commissioner and entered judgment in Plaintiff's favor. Martucci v. Colvin, No. 3:16-cv-00689(JGM). The Appeals Council issued an order on March 16, 2017 returning the case to the ALJ for a new hearing. This new hearing was held on February 2, 2018. Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) provided testimony. On May 22, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. The ALJ's 2018 decision became the final determination of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was forty-one years old on her alleged disability onset date. She has a high school diploma and some college. In 2006, Plaintiff was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma of the left scapula; she had surgery in 2006 to excise the tumor and remove a portion of her scapula and related musculature. In 2008, Plaintiff injured her right, dominant, hand, and required surgery to the small finger to implant a plate and screws. Plaintiff last worked in 2008; she testified she stopped working due to lack of mobility in her left arm and difficulty using her right hand. Her past work experience includes positions as a receptionist, data entry clerk, and collections clerk. Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Joint Stipulation of Facts filed by the parties. [Doc. # 18-1]. 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 September 15, 2008, the alleged onset date. (R. 885). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: status post chondrosarcoma of the left shoulder with scapula resection; status post-fracture of the right metatarsal finger; asthma; obesity; and depressive disorder. (Id.). 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. 855). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[3]:

Plaintiff can perform light work except she can occasionally bend, twist, squat, kneel, crawl, and climb. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally reach overhead with the left, non-master arm. She must avoid hazards such as heights, vibration, and dangerous machinery, but driving is okay. She can perform work tasks that require only occasional handling with the right master hand. She can have occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. She must work in an environment free from concentrated poor ventilation, dust, fumes, gases, odors, humidity, and temperature extremes.

(R. 857). At Step Four, the ALJ found Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work. (R. 861). Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE to find that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (R. 862). Specifically, the VE testified that a person with Plaintiff's vocational factors and the assessed RFC ...

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