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Broadbent v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 11, 2019

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



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Edward Broadbent's, application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). 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 his case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 15]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming his decision. [Doc. # 16]. After careful consideration of the arguments raised by both parties, and thorough review of the administrative record, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion to reverse/remand and grants the Commissioner's motion to affirm.


         Under the Social Security Act, disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity 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). A claimant will meet this definition if his or her impairments are of such severity that the claimant cannot perform pervious work and also cannot, considering the claimant's 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).

         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. 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).

         “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 his DIB application on April 17, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of November 5, 2009. Since he last met the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2014, Plaintiff must show he was disabled on or before that date. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.130. Plaintiff's claim was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On September 30, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Deirdre R. Horton (“the ALJ”). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing. On October 21, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff requested review of this decision by the Appeals Council, and on May 25, 2016, the Appeals Council issued a remand order. This order remanded the case to the ALJ to for additional proceedings, including to obtain evidence from a vocational expert (“VE”) to clarify the effect of Plaintiff's limitations on his occupational base. (R. 146).

         The ALJ held a second hearing on August 9, 2017. At this hearing, Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a VE provided testimony. On September 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a second decision (the “ALJ's decision”) denying Plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council. On November 1, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was forty-two years old on the alleged disability onset date. (R. 39). He has an eighth-grade education and difficulty reading and spelling. (R. 24). Plaintiff has past work experience as a municipal park maintenance worker, a transfer station attendant/waste disposal attendant, and a garbage collector. (Id.). He has not worked since 2007. (R. 41). Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Fact Statements filed by the parties. [Doc. ## 15-2, 16-2]. The Court adopts these Statements and incorporates them by reference herein.

         b. The ALJ's Decision

          The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process to determine whether Plaintiff was disabled under the Social Security Act. At Step One, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date through his date last insured. (R. 17). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease with herniation of the cervical and thoracic discs with some degree of stenosis, status post fusion; obesity; and depressive disorder. (Id.). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, emphysema, and migraines were not severe. (R. 18). At Step Three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 18-21). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity[3]:

Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He is limited to simple, routine tasks; can relate appropriately to others, but should engage in tasks alone rather than in groups or teams and should have only occasional superficial interaction with the general public. No overhead reading with the left arm; no unprotected ...

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