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Richardson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 30, 2019

LISA RICHARDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          Kari A. Dooley, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Lisa Richardson (the “Plaintiff”) brings this administrative appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (the “Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Act. The Plaintiff moves to reverse the Commissioner’s decision, challenging the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) determination of her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and the jobs she is capable of performing in light of that RFC. The Commissioner contends that its decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and moves for an order affirming the decision. For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 24) is DENIED and the Commissioner’s Motion to Affirm (ECF No. 30) is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         It is well-settled that a district court will reverse the decision of the Commissioner only when it is based upon legal error or when it is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Beauvoir v. Chater, 104 F.3d 1432, 1433 (2d Cir. 1997); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. . . .”). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotations omitted). The court does not inquire as to whether the record might also support the plaintiff’s claims but only whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s decision. Bonet ex rel. T.B. v. Colvin, 523 Fed.Appx. 58, 59 (2d Cir. 2013). Substantial evidence can support the Commissioner’s findings even if there is the potential for drawing more than one conclusion from the record. See Vance v. Berryhill, 860 F.3d 1114, 1120 (8th Cir. 2017). The court can reject the Commissioner’s findings of facts “only if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise.” Brault v. Social Sec. Admin. 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012). Stated simply, “if there is substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner’s] determination, it must be upheld.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013).

         Factual and Procedural History

         On June 24, 2014, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Act. On September 19, 2014, the Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Act. In both applications, she alleged an onset date of February 22, 2014. The Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially on October 17, 2014 and upon reconsideration on February 26, 2015. Thereafter, hearings were held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 15, 2016, May 1, 2017, and August 21, 2017. On September 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying the Plaintiff’s applications.

         In her decision, the ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims.[1] At Step 1, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff has not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the claimed onset date. At Step 2, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had several severe impairments, including obesity, osteoarthritis, muscle disorder, degenerative joint disease, and affective disorders. At Step 3, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1. At Step 4, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff, in relevant part, has:

the residual functional capacity [“RFC”] to perform light work . . . except she could stand and walk four hours. . . . She is capable of performing simple, routine tasks with occasional interaction with others with tasks performed independently rather than in groups or teams. She requires a predicable routine.

(R. 16.) The ALJ further found that the Plaintiff does not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work. Finally, at Step 5, the ALJ concluded that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform, including Assembler, Solderer, and Gluer. In addition to these light exertional level jobs, the ALJ further noted that the vocational expert testified that there were three other sedentary jobs that the Plaintiff could perform. Accordingly, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. This appeal followed.

         Discussion

         The Plaintiff’s Residual Functional Capacity

The Plaintiff raises four challenges to the ALJ’s RFC determination. She claims that the ALJ erred: (1) by concluding that she could perform light work even though the state agency consultant at the reconsideration level found that she had an RFC for only sedentary work; (2) by not including some of the restrictions imposed by the state agency consultant; (3) by relying on the opinions of the Commissioner’s consulting psychologist over that of her treating social worker; and (3) by failing to develop the record adequately concerning her mental RFC. The Commissioner disputes each of these claims of error. The Court addresses the claims in turn.

         The ALJ’s Physical RFC Findings

         The Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ’s RFC determination is erroneous because the ALJ credited the findings of the consulting physician, Dr. Khurshid Khan, but rejected Dr. Khan’s finding that the Plaintiff could perform only sedentary work. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence in the record and is, in fact, consistent with Dr. Khan’s opinion. The Court agrees with the Commissioner.

         In the Plaintiff’s Disability Determination Explanation at the reconsideration level, Dr. Khan made several findings concerning the Plaintiff’s exertional limitations. For example, he found that the Plaintiff could frequently lift or carry ten pounds, but she could only occasionally lift or carry twenty pounds. He also found that the Plaintiff could stand and walk for a total of four hours and sit for about six hours a day. The ALJ accepted Dr. Kahn’s findings concerning the Plaintiff’s exertional limitations and explicitly included almost all of them in the physical RFC determination. The only limitation that Dr. Khan found that the ALJ did not include in the RFC was a limitations with respect to right foot controls, specifically, “[n]o constant foot controls [right lower extremity].” The Plaintiff argues that this discrepancy undermines the accuracy of the ALJ’s RFC determination, as she gave weight to Dr. Khan’s opinion.

         The discrepancy is immaterial. Light work requires only “some pushing and pulling of . . . leg controls.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). The RFC, even were it to include this additional limitation, would therefore not preclude the finding that Plaintiff can engage in “light work, ” i.e., positions that do not require “constant” foot control usage. Moreover, there is no evidence that the light work jobs that the ALJ found that the Plaintiff could perform at Step Five are ones that require right-leg foot controls such that they would be inconsistent with this allegedly missing limitation.[2]See Whitaker v. Berryhill, No. 3:17-cv-01337 (SRU), 2018 WL 4583508, at *13 (D. Conn. Sept. 25, 2018) (“Even in the face of an oversight, the ALJ’s decision may be upheld if the error was ‘harmless, ’ that is, if ...


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