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Crespo v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 25, 2019

NILDA CRESPO, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS TO REVERSE AND AFFIRM DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          JEFFREY ALKER MEYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Nilda Crespo asserts that she is disabled and unable to work because of fibromyalgia. She has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, who denied her claim for social security disability insurance benefits. Crespo has filed a motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner, Doc. #35, and the Commissioner has filed a motion to affirm his judgment, Doc. #31. For the reasons discussed below, I will deny Crespo's motion to reverse and grant the Commissioner's motion to affirm.

         Background

         I refer to the transcripts provided by the Commissioner. See Doc. #21-1 through Doc. #21-11. Crespo filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II on December 12, 2013, alleging a disability that began on July 20, 2012. Doc. #21-8 at 6. Because her earnings record allowed for her to remain insured through September 30, 2013, she was required to show that she became disabled on or before that date. Doc. #21-3 at 28. Crespo's claim was initially denied on July 9, 2014, Doc. #21-6 at 12, and denied again upon reconsideration on November 25, 2014, id. at 28. She then timely filed a written request for a hearing by an administrative law judge (ALJ) on December 9, 2014. Doc. #21-7 at 15.

         Crespo appeared with a non-attorney representative and testified at a hearing in New Haven before ALJ Eskunder Boyd on March 29, 2017. Doc. #21-3 at 43. Vocational expert Jean Spaulding testified by phone. Ibid. On May 2, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Crespo was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 28. The Appeals Council denied Crespo's request for review on October 27, 2017. Id. at 2. Crespo then filed this federal court action on March 14, 2018. Doc. #1.

         To qualify as disabled, a claimant must show that she is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, " and "the impairment must be 'of such severity that [the claimant] 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.'" Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d 42, 45 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 423(d)(2)(A)). "[W]ork exists in the national economy when it exists in significant numbers either in the region where [claimant] live[s] or in several other regions of the country, " and "when there is a significant number of jobs (in one or more occupations) having requirements which [claimant] [is] able to meet with his physical or mental abilities and vocational qualifications." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566(a)-(b); see also Kennedy v. Astrue, 343 F.App'x 719, 722 (2d Cir. 2009).

         The agency engages in the following five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a "residual functional capacity" assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

Estrella v. Berryhill, 925 F.3d 90, 94 (2d Cir. 2019); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         In applying this framework, if an ALJ finds a claimant to be disabled or not disabled at a particular step, he may make a decision without proceeding to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proving the case at Steps One through Four; the burden shifts at Step Five to the Commissioner to demonstrate that there is other work that the claimant can perform. See McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         After proceeding through all five steps, the ALJ concluded that Crespo was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. At Step One, the ALJ determined that Crespo had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 20, 2012, the date of the alleged onset of her disability. Doc. #21-3 at 30.

         At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Crespo suffered from the following severe impairments through her date last insured: carpal tunnel syndrome, lumbar radiculopathy, fibromyalgia, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder. Ibid.

         At Step Three, the ALJ determined that Crespo did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Ibid.

         The ALJ then found that Crespo had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following limitations:

[S]he may never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds but can occasionally climb stairs and ramps. She may occasionally balance, stoop, and crouch, but never kneel or crawl. She cannot perform any overhead reaching. She may frequently handle or finger. She can perform simple routine repetitive tasks and sustain concentration, persistence, and pace for two-hour segments. She has no problems interacting with others. She can stand/walk up to 4 hours total, and sit for up to 6 hours total. She requires a sit/stand option whereas [sic] she can sit for about 30 minutes, alternate to a standing position for about 2-3 minutes, and then resume sitting.

Id. at 32. At Step Four, the ALJ concluded that Crespo was unable to perform any past relevant work through the date last insured. Id. at 35.

         At Step Five, weighing Crespo's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that Crespo had the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy, such as cashier, price marker, and collator/operator. Id. at 36. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the vocational expert. Ibid.

         The ALJ ultimately held that Crespo was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 37.

         Discussion

         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); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla" and "means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lesterhuis v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 83, 87 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam). Absent a legal error, the Court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the Court might have ruled differently had it considered the matter in the first instance. See Eastman v. Barnhart, 241 F.Supp.2d 160, 168 (D. Conn. 2003).

         Crespo makes four claims of error. First, Crespo claims that the ALJ did not adequately develop the administrative record by failing to secure various function-by-function assessments and medical source statements from Crespo's treating sources. Doc. #35-1 at 17. Second, Crespo claims that the ALJ's analyses at Step Two and Three were insufficient. Id. at 24. Third, Crespo claims that the ALJ inadequately evaluated her fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and combination of impairments. Id. at 28. Finally, Crespo claims that the ALJ's Step Five analysis is not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 33. I address each claim in turn.

         The ALJ's responsibility ...


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