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Lorenzo v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 18, 2019




         This action filed under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security [“SSA”] denying the plaintiff disability insurance benefits [“SSDI”].


         On February 17, 2015, the plaintiff filed an application for SSDI claiming that he had been disabled since April 1, 1995, when he was twenty-two years old, due to congenital cerebellar vermian hypoplasia, [1] learning disabilities, developmental delay of language and motor skills, depression, autism spectrum disorder, short-term memory impairment, and difficulty retaining information and remembering. (Certified Transcript of Administrative Proceedings, dated September 27, 2018 [“Tr.”] 142, 222-23; see Tr. 81). The plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 105-06, 157-59), and on November 30, 2016, a hearing was held by videoconference with ALJ Ellen Parker Bush presiding; the plaintiff testified by video from Hartford, Connecticut, and a vocational expert and the ALJ were located in Lawrence, Massachusetts. (Tr. 59-80; see Tr. 208, 302-04).[2] On January 18, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying the plaintiff's claim for benefits (Tr. 136-56), and on January 27, 2017, the plaintiff filed a request for review of the hearing decision. (Tr. 214-21). On July 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied the request, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-4).

         On August 22, 2018, the plaintiff, proceeding pro se, as an unrepresented party, filed his complaint in this pending action (Doc. No. 1), and on September 20, 2018, the parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. (Doc. No. 14). This case was transferred accordingly. On October 23, 2018, defendant filed his answer and administrative transcript, dated September 27, 2018. (Doc. No. 15). On December 14, 2018, the plaintiff filed a “Stipulation of Facts” (Doc. No. 18), followed by a Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner, on January 10, 2019. (Doc. No. 20; see Doc. No. 19). On February 28, 2019, the defendant filed his Motion to Affirm (Doc. No. 21), and brief in support (Doc. No. 22-1 [“Def.'s Mem.”]).

         For the reasons stated below, the plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 20) is denied, and the defendant's Motion to Affirm (Doc. No. 21) is granted.


         On March 16, 2010, the plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits [“SSI”], alleging disability since December 31, 2008. (Tr. 12-18; see Tr. 239-46). A hearing was held in New Jersey on October 12, 2011 (Tr. 25-58), at which the plaintiff, a non-attorney representative for the plaintiff, and a Spanish language interpreter appeared. (Tr. 25). At that time, the plaintiff was homeless, and his representative stated that she planned to get his treatment records but had not received them at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 31-32). The plaintiff testified that he attended school until eighth grade and completed his GED in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. (Tr. 37). He came to the United States in February 2010; he does not speak any English. (Tr. 38). The plaintiff testified that he sold clothing for his family (Tr. 38-39), but had not been able to secure work in a private business. (Tr. 39). He left the family business because he “couldn't put up with the pressure and the humiliation.” (Tr. 39). The plaintiff testified that he had memory problems, and that he watched television, but could not remember what he watches. (Tr. 41-42). He explained that he is friendly, and he had lived with friends on occasion. (Tr. 43). The ALJ denied that application for benefits on April 10, 2012. (Tr. 116-35; see Tr. 85). Three years later, SSA granted the plaintiff SSI benefits. Although only portions of that underlying application are in the transcript, the record reflects that in 2015, the plaintiff was found “disabled” with an onset date of March 1, 2015. (Tr. 103). Moreover, at the end of her decision on the plaintiff's application for SSDI, the ALJ noted that her decision “has no effect on [the plaintiff's] current receipt of [SSI] benefits.” (Tr. 151).

         On November 30, 2016, the ALJ held a hearing on the underlying application for SSDI benefits. (Tr. 61). On the date of that hearing, the plaintiff was 44 years old. (Tr. 68).[3] The plaintiff, who only communicates in Spanish, appeared at this hearing with a translator, but without an attorney. (Tr. 61). The ALJ offered the plaintiff a postponement so that he could secure the assistance of an attorney, but the plaintiff insisted that he wanted to go forward. (Tr. 64). The ALJ then gave the plaintiff a waiver of representation form, and the interpreter read it to the plaintiff before he signed the document. (Tr. 64-66). Once the waiver of representation form was signed, the ALJ commenced her examination of the plaintiff.

         The plaintiff testified that, when he was 35 years old, he first “found out about [his] condition[, ] [and he] quickly came to exercise [his] rights . . . as a disabled person.” (Tr. 68). The plaintiff moved to the United States from Puerto Rico, locating first to Florida, and then to New Jersey, before settling in Connecticut. (Tr. 69-70). He stayed with friends and relatives in each location (Tr. 70), and then, when he arrived in Connecticut, his mother stayed with him for the first month. (Tr. 70). He has cousins who live in the Hartford area, but “none of them care for [him].” (Tr. 71).

         In his application for benefits in 2010, the plaintiff's “girl-friend” reported that he “[b]asically stay[ed] home watching tv all day.” (Tr. 332; see Tr. 356). He needed reminders to do things, and he took a long time to do most things. (Tr. 334, 354-55). He shopped for groceries and cooked microwavable meals. (Tr. 334-36, 352). The plaintiff did not handle stress well, and he was “afraid of people and places.” (Tr. 338; see Tr. 355).

         The plaintiff could drive, but did not have a Connecticut license. (Tr. 71). He had a Florida driving license, which he obtained for identification. (Tr. 71).

         He attended school until tenth grade and received his GED after two attempts to pass the exam. (Tr. 72-73, 325; but see Tr. 271 (plaintiff reported he “left school in 8th grade because [he] couldn't continue with [his] condition”)). His school reports reflected grades ranging from A to F. (Tr. 347-48). He received a two-year certificate in computers in 2002, and he learned how to use PowerPoint and Microsoft Word. (Tr. 73, 75).

         The ALJ explained to the plaintiff that, under his application for SSDI, “in order to be found eligible[ for benefits, ] . . . [he] would have to prove that [he was] disabled before 2000, that's 15 years ago.” (Tr. 63). The ALJ told the plaintiff that the records she had, showed that the plaintiff was working in 1995 and 1996. (Tr. 63).[4] The plaintiff initially responded that it was “[o]ne thing . . . to be able to work, another . . . is to be forced to work because of food, because if [he] didn't work[, ] [he] couldn't eat.” (Tr. 63-64).

         Next, the ALJ asked the plaintiff about the period between 1993 and 1996 when he filed taxes for self-employment. (Tr. 75-76). The plaintiff testified that “[t]hose businesses were [his] mom's”; his mother stole his identify so that she could open businesses in her name and benefit from them. (Tr. 76). According to the plaintiff, he was forced to be at her store, but he could not perform the work. (Tr. 76).

         At this point, the ALJ stopped the plaintiff and recommended that he get an attorney because “either you did the work and this is what credit you got for doing the work that allows you to be eligible for Social Security, or you didn't do the work and your mother stole your Social Security number and now you are not eligible for Social Security.” (Tr. 76). The plaintiff then asked about his “right from being born as a victim without right to being able to work[.]” (Tr. 77). The ALJ explained that, to be eligible for SSDI, the plaintiff must have earned credits through his work history, and for that, the plaintiff's limited employment in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996, was relevant. (Tr. 77). She explained further that he could not obtain benefits as a child unless his mother applied for benefits, but that Supplemental Security Income benefits are not available in Puerto Rico. (Tr. 78).

         When the plaintiff asked if he had the “necessary points to get Social Security?”, the ALJ responded, “Not if you did not work.” (Tr. 78). In response, the plaintiff said, “Well, put down that I worked.” (Tr. 78). At that point, the ALJ stopped the hearing to prevent the plaintiff from perjuring himself, because the plaintiff was not “able to tell . . . accurate information.” (Tr. 78).


         Following the five-step evaluation process, [5] the ALJ found that the plaintiff last met the insured status requirements on June 30, 2000 (Tr. 144), and that the plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of April 1, 1995, through his date last insured of June 30, 2000. (Tr. 145, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq.).

         At step two, the ALJ concluded that, through the plaintiff's date last insured, he had the medically determinable impairment of congenital cerebellar vermain hypoplasia, which was not diagnosed prior to the date last insured, but which was “designated a medically determinable impairment based upon medical opinions that the condition existed since birth.” (Tr. 145, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521). The ALJ stated that, through the plaintiff's date last insured, the plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited the ability to perform basic work-related activities for twelve consecutive months; therefore, the claimant did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. (Tr. 145, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 et seq.). Specifically, the ALJ concluded that the medical evidence of the plaintiff's congenital vermain hypoplasia “fail[ed] to support more than minimal limitations in the claimant's ability to perform work activities on a regular and consistent basis prior to June 3, 2000.” (Tr. 146). In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ relied on the prior ALJ decision, dated April 10, 2012, in which that ALJ, based on the same evidence, found that the plaintiff was not disabled for the purpose of receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits as of December 31, 2008. (Tr. 146). Additionally, the ALJ indicated that the medical evidence did not support more than minimal limitations prior to June 2000, and no medical evidence existed prior to 2008. (Tr. 147). The ALJ considered the four broad functional areas for evaluating a degenerative neurological disorder before concluding that the plaintiff's mental impairment caused no more than “mild” limitation in any of the functional areas. (Tr. 149-50). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from April 1, 1995, the alleged onset date, through June 30, 2000, the date last insured. (Tr. 151, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).


         The scope of 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. See Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). The court may “set aside the Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled only if the factual findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the decision is based on legal error.” Burgess v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 117, 127 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks & citation omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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) (citation omitted); see Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). “The substantial evidence rule also applies to inferences and conclusions that are drawn from findings of fact.” Gonzalez v. Apfel, 23 F.Supp.2d 179, 189 (D. Conn. 1998) (citing Rodriguez v. Califano, 431 F.Supp. 421, 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1977)). However, the court may not decide facts, reweigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Dotson v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 571, 577 (7th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). Instead, the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the ...

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