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Miller v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 25, 2019

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



         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Kasandra Miller'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. #14]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming his decision. [Doc. #15]. 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; 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 and SSI application on February 11, 2016, alleging an onset of disability as of January 1, 2012. Her claim was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On December 28, 2017, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Matthew Kuperstein (“the ALJ”). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. On February 8, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. On January 14, 2019, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was fifty-two years old on the alleged onset of disability date. (R. 27). She completed the eleventh grade and can communicate in English. (R. 27). The ALJ did not find sufficient evidence of Plaintiff's past relevant work to make a finding at Step Four of the sequential evaluation. (R. 27). Under the “expedited process” sections of 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(h) and 416.920(h), the ALJ proceeded to Step Five. (R. 27). 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 January 1, 2012. (R. 18). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, history of substance abuse, and asthma/emphysematous. (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. 19-21). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[3]:

to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The clamant is unable to do work that involves understanding and remembering complex directives. The claimant is further limited to work that involves routine tasks; to work that does not involve strict time or production quotas; and the claimant needs to be able to avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dust, fumes, gases, or poor ventilation.

(R. 21).

         At Step Four, the ALJ could not determine whether Plaintiff had past relevant work and, pursuant to the “expedited process” provided for in the regulations, proceeded to Step Five. (R. 27). 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. 27-28). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 28).

         II. ...

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