United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS
SARAH A. L. MERRIAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
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.
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.
2, 2017, plaintiff, represented by non-Attorney
representative David McCluskey,  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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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).
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)).
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).
SSA LEGAL STANDARD
the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a
disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42
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
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
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.
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).
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).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
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
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