United States District Court, D. Connecticut
JOSEPH P. DEBIASE, III
ANDREW SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
RULING ON THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE THE
DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER, OR IN THE ALTERNATIVE, MOTION
FOR REMAND FOR A HEARING, AND ON THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION
FOR AN ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE
M. SPECTOR, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
action, filed under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act,
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks review of a final decision by
the Commissioner of Social Security [“SSA”]
denying the plaintiff disability insurance benefits
April 10, 2014, the plaintiff filed an application for SSDI,
claiming that he had been disabled since November 13, 2013,
due to chronic leg and foot pain, chronic neck and back pain,
anxiety, depression and a learning disability. (See
Certified Transcript of Administrative Proceedings, dated
April 23, 2019 [“Tr.”] 322-23, 373). The
plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon
reconsideration. (Tr. 174-77, 190-92). On August 10, 2016, a
hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge
[“ALJ”] Ronald J. Thomas, at which the plaintiff
and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 75-107). The ALJ held
a second hearing on July 25, 2017, at which the plaintiff and
another vocational expert testified. (Tr.
38-74). On September 27, 2017, the ALJ issued an
unfavorable decision denying the plaintiff's claim for
benefits. (Tr. 18-31). On September 6, 2018, the Appeals
Council denied the request, thereby rendering the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 6-12;
see Tr. 1-5).
January 11, 2019, the plaintiff filed his complaint in this
pending action (Doc. No. 1), and on January 22, 2019, the
parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States
Magistrate Judge. (Doc. No. 9). This case was transferred
accordingly. On April 18, 2019, the plaintiff filed his
Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No.
14), with a brief (Doc. No. 14-2 [“Pl.'s
Mem.”]), exhibits (Doc. Nos. 14-3, 14-4, 14-5, 14-6,
14-7, 14-8, 14-9, 14-10), and Statement of Material Facts
(Doc. No. 14-1) in support. On July 16, 2019, the defendant
filed his Motion to Affirm, with brief (Doc. No. 18-1
[“Def.'s Mem.”]) and a Statement of Material
Facts (Doc. No. 18-1) in support.
reasons stated below, the plaintiff's Motion to Reverse
the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 14) is
denied, and the defendant's Motion to Affirm
(Doc. No. 18) is granted.
hearings were held in this case. The first was held on August
10, 2016, and the second, supplemental hearing, was held on
July 25, 2017, because the ALJ was “able to get . . . a
2014 consultative exam[.]” (Tr. 40; see Tr.
418-19). On the date of the first hearing in 2016,
the plaintiff was thirty-nine years old (Tr. 78); he was
forty years old at the second hearing. (Tr. 41). The
plaintiff was single and lived alone in an apartment below
his parents. (Tr. 78, 100). He testified that he could walk
upstairs to his parents' apartment but walking up the
stairs “hurt.” (Tr. 50).
completed high school (Tr. 79) and last worked in October
2013 as a yard man in a scrap yard. (Tr. 79). Prior to
working in the scrap yard, the plaintiff worked in a
warehouse, disassembling oxygen tanks for re-valving. (Tr.
80). Prior to that, he worked at Industrial Wrecking where he
“ran a jackhammer” for demolition work. (Tr. 80).
plaintiff testified that he was born with a problem with his
left ankle, and, as he aged, this problem made working
“very difficult.” (Tr. 80; see Tr. 429
(October 7, 2013: “patient is concerned he is going to
lose his job because his pain prevents him from working at
his normal fast pace.”)). The plaintiff testified that
his right leg and his back would hurt from his left ankle
condition because when his “ankle does not perform
properly[, he would] have a wobble and weird walk[, ]”
which, over time, caused pain. (Tr. 90-91; see Tr.
55). He did not take medication for his leg and ankle pain.
(Tr. 82-83). He went to a rehabilitation facility in 2014 for
an addiction to pain medication, so he stopped using
prescribed pain medication. (Tr. 92). Over-the-counter pain
medication did not help. (Tr. 93). He preferred “to lay
down and let it get better by itself.” (Tr. 82-83). He
would lay down on a bed or recline in a chair for an hour or
so with his left leg elevated. (Tr. 99). Additionally, as the
plaintiff testified, he had “severe anxiety
issues” for which he would take Ativan. (Tr. 81-82;
see Tr. 50 (experienced “full-blown panic
attacks” “maybe like twice/three times a
week”)). He had attention deficient disorder, so it was
difficult for him to retain information. (Tr. 85, 53). He
testified that he could not concentrate because of his
anxiety, and he could not perform routine/repetitive work.
(Tr. 48). By his second hearing, in July 2017, the plaintiff
had been diagnosed with diabetes and prescribed Metformin.
(Tr. 41). Additionally, the plaintiff testified that he had
carpal tunnel in both of his hands, but it was worse in his
left hand than in his right. (Tr. 48).
first hearing, the plaintiff testified that he did not see a
doctor often because he did “not have a vehicle.”
(Tr. 81). He did see his therapist, Dr. Jason Kiss,
“twice a month or whenever [he could] get an
appointment.” (Tr. 82). At his second hearing, the
plaintiff testified that he had a truck. (Tr. 59). He was
able to cook, clean, care for his personal hygiene, do
laundry, perform yard work, grocery shop, and drive. (Tr.
86-87). His parents would help him with his outside chores
and cleaning his apartment. (Tr. 100-01). He built model cars
but would only work on them for one or two hours before he
would get a “massive headache” and numbness in
his hands. (Tr. 56-57, 94).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
the five-step evaluation process,  the ALJ found that the
plaintiff last met the insured status requirements through
December 31, 2018 (Tr. 24), and that the plaintiff did not
engage in substantial gainful activity since November 13,
2013, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 24, citing 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1571 et seq.).
two, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had the following
severe impairments: osteoarthopathy of the left foot/ankle;
obesity; panic disorders; and opiate dependence. (Tr. 24,
citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). The ALJ concluded at
step three that the plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the
severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 24-26, citing 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
Specifically, the ALJ concluded that the claimant's
impairments did not meet or medically equal Listings 1.02
(major dysfunction of a joint), or 12.06 (anxiety and
obsessive-compulsive disorders) in that the plaintiff had a
mild limitation in understanding, remembering or applying
information, a moderate limitation in interacting with
others, a mild limitation in concentrating, persisting or
maintaining pace, and, a mild limitation in adapting or
managing oneself. (Tr. 25-26).
concluded that the plaintiff had the residual functional
capacity [“RFC”] to perform sedentary work as
defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except that he was
capable of simple, routine, repetitious work tasks that did
not require teamwork, working closely with the public,
climbing of ropes, ladders or scaffolds, or left foot
controls, but did involve occasional interaction with the
public, co-workers, or supervisors, occasional bending,
balancing, twisting, squatting, kneeling, crawling, and
climbing. (Tr. 26-27). At step four, the ALJ concluded that
the plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant
work (Tr. 29, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565), but he
retained the RFC to perform other work. (Tr. 30, citing 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)). The ALJ
considered the vocational expert's testimony that a
person with the RFC adopted by the ALJ could have performed
the work of a “monitor[, ]” “document
preparer[, ]” and “addresser.” (Tr. 30).
Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not
under a disability at any time from November 13, 2013,
through the date of his decision. (Tr. 31, citing 20 C.F.R.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
scope of 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) (citation omitted). 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) (citation & internal quotation marks
omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
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) (citation omitted); see Yancey
v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation
omitted). “The substantial evidence rule also applies
to inferences and conclusions that are drawn from findings of
fact.” Gonzalez v. Apfel, 23 F.Supp.2d 179,
189 (D. Conn. 1998) (citing Rodriguez v. Califano,
431 F.Supp. 421, 423 (S.D.N.Y. 1977)). However, the court may
not decide facts, reweigh evidence, or substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Dotson v.
Shalala, 1 F.3d 571, 577 (7th Cir. 1993) (citation
omitted). Instead, the court must scrutinize the entire
record to determine the reasonableness of the ALJ's
factual findings. See Id. Furthermore, the
Commissioner's findings are conclusive if supported by
substantial evidence and should be upheld even in those cases
where the reviewing court might have found otherwise.
See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Beauvoir
v. Chater, 104 F.3d 1432, 1433 (2d Cir. 1997) (citation
omitted); Eastman v. Barnhart, 241 F.Supp.2d 160,
168 (D. Conn. 2003).
initial matter, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ was not
properly appointed and lacked authority to hear and decide
this claim. (Pl.'s Mem. at 20-23). The plaintiff also
claims that the administrative record was not developed as
the ALJ “took no steps whatsoever to obtain medical
source statements from Dr. [Jason] Kiss and/or Dr. [Shyla]
Muriel detailing on a function-by-function basis exactly what
[the plaintiff] could and could not do.” (Pl.'s
Mem. at 1-3). Specifically, the plaintiff contends that the
treatment records do not evidence the effects that the
plaintiff's multiple conditions had on his
function-by-function abilities. (Pl.'s Mem. at 6). In
addition, he maintains that there are no contemporaneous
treatment records from Griffin Faculty Practice prior to
January 15, 2017 and no records relating to the
plaintiff's regular treatment sessions with Dr. Kiss.
(Pl.'s Mem. at 6). The plaintiff argues also that his
claims of pain were not considered in a “meaningful
manner.” (Pl.'s Mem. at 18-19). Finally, the
plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step five. (Pl.'s
Mem. at 10-18).
ALJ'S AUTHORITY TO PRESIDE OVER THIS CASE
plaintiff seeks a remand of this case under Lucia v.
Securities and Exchange Commission, 138 S.Ct. 2044
(2018), on the ground that the ALJ was an inferior officer
who was not properly appointed under the United States
Constitution's Appointments Clause at the time of the
hearing, and thus, did not have the legal authority to
preside over this matter or to issue a decision. (Pl.'s
Mem. at 20-23).
Lucia, which was decided on June 21, 2018, the
United States Supreme Court [“Supreme Court”]
held that a “timely challenge” may be made to the
“constitutional validity” of the appointment of
an officer during the administrative process. See
Lucia, 138 S.Ct. at 2055. The Court explained that the
remedy for a timely challenge to the constitutional
validity of the appointment of an ALJ who adjudicates a case
is a “new ‘hearing before a properly
appointed' official.” Id. ...