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Martin v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 16, 2019

SHERRY MARTIN
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION[1]

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS

          HON. SARAH A. L. MERRIAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Sherry Martin (“plaintiff”), brings this appeal pursuant to §205(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), as amended, seeking review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Plaintiff has moved for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner, or in the alternative, for remand [Doc. #21]. Defendant has filed a motion for an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #25]. The parties have filed a joint statement of facts. See Doc. #21-2.

         For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand [Doc. #21] is GRANTED, to the extent that it seeks remand for further proceedings, and defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #25] is DENIED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on December 5, 2014, alleging disability beginning July 2, 2009. See Certified Transcript of the Administrative Record, Doc. #11 and attachments, compiled on June 30, 2018, (hereinafter “Tr.”) at 218. Plaintiff's application was denied initially on January 21, 2015, see Tr. 94-103, and upon reconsideration on October 13, 2015, see Tr. 106-23.

         On May 2, 2017, plaintiff, represented by non-Attorney representative David McCluskey, [2] appeared and testified before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John Aletta. See Tr. 53-81. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Susan Gaudet also testified at the hearing. See Tr. 81-93. On June 1, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. See Tr. 21-36. On April 18, 2018, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's June 1, 2017, decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See Tr. 1-4. The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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. See Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). Second, the court must decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence. See Id. 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. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983).

         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 [his] 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). 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). It is well established that “an ALJ's credibility determination is generally entitled to deference on appeal.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 420 (2d Cir. 2013); see also Kessler v. Colvin, 48 F.Supp.3d 578, 595 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (“A federal court must afford great deference to the ALJ's credibility finding, since the ALJ had the opportunity to observe the claimant's demeanor while the claimant was testifying.” (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)); Pietrunti v. Dir., Office of Workers' Comp. Programs, 119 F.3d 1035, 1042 (2d Cir. 1997) (“Credibility findings of an ALJ are entitled to great deference and therefore can be reversed only if they are patently unreasonable.” (citation and internal quotation marks 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). “[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).

         III. SSA LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1).

         To be considered disabled under the Act and therefore entitled to benefits, plaintiff must demonstrate that she 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 [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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. 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 [she] is not, the Secretary next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which significantly limits [her] 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 [her] 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, [she] has the residual functional capacity to perform [her] past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform [her] 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.

Id.

         “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 [her] 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” (“RFC”) 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)(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). “[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).

         IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Following the above-described five-step evaluation process, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. See Tr. 36. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of July 2, 2009, through her last insured date of March 31, 2015. See Tr. 26. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, status post cervical spine discectomy and fusion; mood disorder; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine; lumbar spine scoliosis; chronic pain syndrome.” Tr. 26-27 (citations omitted).

         At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. See Tr. 27. The ALJ specifically considered Listings 1.04 and 12.04. See Tr. 27-29. Before moving on to step four, the ALJ found plaintiff had the RFC

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she used a cane frequently for walking. She could occasionally reach overhead with her left and right arm. She could climb ramps and stairs frequently; never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; balance frequently; stoop occasionally; kneel frequently; crouch frequently; crawl occasionally. She could never work at unprotected heights. She could perform repetitive work or continuously perform the same work, according to set procedures, sequence, or pace. She could have occasional contact with the public, and could not ...

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