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Mitkowski v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 17, 2019




         Plaintiff Christopher Mitkowski 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 Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 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. #22] is DENIED. Defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #23] is GRANTED.


         The procedural history of this case is not disputed. Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on February 7, 2014, alleging disability as of April 17, 2013. [Certified Transcript of the Record, Compiled on May 8, 2018, Doc. #19 (hereinafter “Tr.”) 20, 197-204]. Plaintiff alleged disability due to “back, kidney problems and broken right ankle.” [Tr. 93, 112]. His SSI claim was denied initially on September 4, 2014, and on reconsideration on December 30, 2014. [Tr. 20, 127-29, 138-40]. Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on February 7, 2015. [Tr. 20, 141].

         On May 10, 2016, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Deirdre R. Horton held a hearing, at which plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. [Tr. 41-92]. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Frank D. Samlaska also testified at the hearing. [Tr. 76-91, 262-63]. On July 18, 2016, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled, and denied her claim. [Tr. 17-40]. Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the hearing decision on September 20, 2016. [Tr. 190-93].

         On January 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby rendering ALJ Kuperstein's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [Tr. 1-6].

         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. Mitkowski 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 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.” 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”).[2]

         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 Horton concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. [Tr. 17-40]. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 7, 2014, the application date. [Tr. 22].

         At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had status post ORIF (open reduction internal fixation) right ankle fracture; degenerative disc disease; and affective disorder with generalized anxiety, all of which are severe impairments under the Act and regulations. [Tr. 22].

         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. §§416.920(d), 416;925 and 416.926). [Tr. 24]. The ALJ specifically considered Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine); 1.02B (major dysfunction of a joint); 12.04 (affective disorder); and 12.06 (anxiety disorder). [Tr. 24-26]. The ALJ also conducted a psychiatric review technique and found that plaintiff had a mild limitation in activities of daily living and a moderate limitation in social functioning and concentration, persistence or pace. [Tr. 25]. The ALJ found that claimant had no periods of decompensation, which have been of extended duration [Tr. 25].

         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 416.967(b) except he is able to perform simple, routine tasks with no work with the general public; he is able to work around others but should have only occasional direct interaction with coworkers.

[Tr. 26].

         At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work as a sheet rocker and taper. [Tr. 32]. At step five, after considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ found that jobs existed in ...

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