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Testa v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 15, 2019

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



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Louise Albertine Testa's, application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI). 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. #13]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming his decision. [Doc. # 14]. After careful consideration of the arguments raised by both parties, and thorough review of the administrative record, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion and remands the case for further proceedings.


         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; 416.920. 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, 844 (2d Cir. 1981). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be 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).

         I. BACKGROUND

         a. Facts

         Plaintiff filed her DIB application on May 2, 2016, and SSI application on May 3, 2016, alleging an onset of disability as of December 7, 2015. Her claim was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On March 21, 2018, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Louis Bonsangue (“the ALJ”). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. On April 4, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. On December 10, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was fifty years old on the alleged onset of disability date. (R. 23). She completed a high school education and can communicate in English. (R. 24). At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was working as a crossing guard approximately 2 hours per day. (R. 18). Plaintiff's earnings in that job are not enough to reach substantial gainful activity levels, as a result, she has no past relevant work under the Social Security rules. (R.18). Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Statement of Facts filed by the parties. [Doc. ##13-1; 14-1]. 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 has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 7, 2015. (R. 18). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine. (R. 18). At Step Three, the ALJ found Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 19-20). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[3]:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), but with the limitations described in this paragraph. The claimant could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but she could never climb ropes, ladders and scaffolds. She could frequently balance, occasionally stoop, occasionally kneel, and occasionally crouch and never crawl. Additionally, the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, humidity, vibration, moving parts and unprotected heights. Furthermore, the claimant could stand and walk, combined, only 4 hours in an 8-hour workday.

(R. 20).

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. 23). Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert to find that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (R. 24-25). Accordingly, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled from December 7, 2015, through the date of his decision, April 4, 2018. (R. 25).

         II. ...

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