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DeBiase v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 25, 2019




         This 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 [“SSDI”].


         On 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).[2] 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).

         On 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.

         For the 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.


         Two 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).[3] 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).

         He 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).

         The 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).

         At his 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).[4]


         Following the five-step evaluation process, [5] 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.).

         At step 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).

         The ALJ 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. § 404.1520(g)).


         The 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).

         V. DISCUSSION

         As an 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).


         The 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).

         In 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. ...

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