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Williams v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 22, 2019

JEANETTE DELORSE WILLIAMS
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION[1]

          RULING ON CROSS MOTIONS

          HON. SARAH A. L. MERRIAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jeanette Delorse Williams (“plaintiff”), brings this appeal under §205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner” or “defendant”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[2] Plaintiff has moved to reverse the Commissioner's decision. [Doc. #20]. Defendant has filed a cross-motion seeking an order affirming the decision of the Commissioner. [Doc. #22].

         For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #20] is GRANTED, to the extent plaintiff seeks a remand for further administrative proceedings, and defendant's Motion for an Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #22] is DENIED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY[3]

         Plaintiff filed concurrent applications for DIB and SSI on January 7, 2013, alleging disability beginning November 1, 2012. See Certified Transcript of the Administrative Record, Doc. #15, compiled on January 13, 2017, (hereinafter “Tr.”) at 248-63. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on April 17, 2013, see Tr. 156-63, and upon reconsideration on July 9, 2013. See Tr. 166-71.

         On December 12, 2014, plaintiff, represented by Attorney Allan Rubenstein, appeared and testified by videoconference at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John Benson. See generally Tr. 39-113. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Warren Maxim appeared and testified by telephone at the administrative hearing. See Tr. 83-10; see also Tr. 245-47. On March 5, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. See Tr. 8-29. On September 1, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's March 5, 2015, decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See Tr. 2-5. The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         Plaintiff, now represented by Attorney Ivan M. Katz, timely filed this action for review and moves to reverse the decision of the Commissioner. [Doc. #20]. On appeal, plaintiff argues that: (1) the ALJ failed to follow the treating physician rule; (2) the ALJ failed to develop the administrative record; (3) the ALJ misconstrued the evidence of record and failed to assess plaintiff's impairments in combination; and (4) the ALJ's step five findings are not supported by substantial evidence. See generally Doc. #20-2.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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. Second, the Court must decide whether the determination is supported by substantial evidence. See Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). 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).

         The 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.” (citing Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-74 (2d Cir. 1999))). “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 her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles.” Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987).

         “[T]he 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) (alterations added) (citing Treadwell v. Schweiker, 698 F.2d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1983)). 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) (citing Carroll v. Sec. Health and Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 643 (2d Cir. 1983)). “Moreover, when a finding is potentially dispositive on the issue of disability, there must be enough discussion to enable a reviewing court to determine whether substantial evidence exists to support that finding.” Johnston v. Colvin, No. 3:13CV00073(JCH), 2014 WL 1304715, at *6 (D. Conn. Mar. 31, 2014) (citing Peoples v. Shalala, No. 92CV4113, 1994 WL 621922, at *4 (N.D.Ill. Nov. 4, 1994)).

         It is 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) (quoting Lamay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 562 F.3d 503, 507 (2d Cir. 2009)).

         Finally, some of the Regulations cited in this decision, particularly those applicable to the review of medical source evidence, were amended effective March 27, 2017. Those “new regulations apply only to claims filed on or after March 27, 2017.” Smith v. Comm'r, 731 Fed.Appx. 28, 30 n.1 (2d Cir. 2018) (summary order). Where a plaintiff's claim for benefits was filed prior to March 27, 2017, “the Court reviews the ALJ's decision under the earlier regulations[.]” Rodriguez v. Colvin, No. 3:15CV1723(DFM), 2018 WL 4204436, at *4 n.6 (D. Conn. Sept. 4, 2018); White v. Comm'r, No. 17CV4524(JS), 2018 WL 4783974, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2018) (“While the Act was amended effective March 27, 2017, the Court reviews the ALJ's decision under the earlier regulations because the Plaintiff's application was filed before the new regulations went into effect.” (citation omitted)).

         III. SSA LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Social Security Act, every individual who is under a disability is entitled to disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §423(a)(1).

         To be 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 he 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.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(c), 416.920(c) (requiring that the impairment “significantly limit[] ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” to be considered “severe” (alterations added)).

         There is a familiar five-step analysis used to determine if a person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920. 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 he is not, the Secretary next considers whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” which significantly limits his 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 him 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 fifth steps:

Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his 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.

Id.

         “Through 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) (alteration added); Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (per curiam)). The residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is what ...


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