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Rahni v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 14, 2019

NOREEN RAHNI, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [1] Defendant.

         MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE: PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE OR IN THE ALTERNATIVE TO REMAND THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (ECF NO. 21) AND DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR AN ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (ECF NO. 35)

          Kari A. Dooley, United States District Judge.

         Noreen Rahni (the “Plaintiff”) brings this administrative appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the decision of Defendant Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”) pursuant to Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiff moves to reverse the Commissioner's decision or, in the alternative, to remand the case to the agency based on the alleged failure of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to: (1) identify all of Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments; (2) confer proper weight on the opinions of two of Plaintiff's treating physicians; and (3) determine properly Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity. The Commissioner opposes each of these claims of error and moves for judgment on the pleadings affirming its decision. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse is DENIED and the Commissioner's Motion to Affirm is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         A person is “disabled” under the Act if that person is unable 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); 1382c(a)(3)(A). A physical or mental impairment is one “that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id. §§ 423(d)(3); 1382c(a)(3)(D). In addition, a claimant must establish that her “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . .” Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Commissioner, a five-step sequential evaluation process is used to determine whether a claimant's condition meets the Act's definition of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. In brief, the five steps are as follows: (1) the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has “a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment” or combination thereof that “must have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months;” (3) if such a severe impairment is identified, the Commissioner next determines whether the medical evidence establishes that the claimant's impairment “meets or equals” an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations; (4) if the claimant does not establish the “meets or equals” requirement, the Commissioner must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work; (5) if the claimant is unable to perform her past work, the Commissioner must next determine whether there is other work in the national economy which the claimant can perform in light of her RFC and her education, age, and work experience. Id. §§ 404.1520 (a)(4)(i)-(v); 404.1509. The claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to Step One through Step Four, while the Commissioner bears the burden of proof as to Step Five. McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 150 (2d Cir. 2014).

         It is well-settled that a district court will reverse the decision of the Commissioner only when it is based upon legal error or when it is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. See, e.g., Greek v. Colvin, 802 F.3d 370, 374-75 (2d Cir. 2015) (per curiam); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive”). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Talavera v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 145, 151 (2d Cir. 2012) (quotations marks and citation omitted). “In determining whether the agency's findings were supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing court is required to examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences can be drawn.” Selian v. Astrue, 708 F.3d 409, 417 (2d Cir. 2013) (per curiam) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “Under this standard of review, absent an error of law, a court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the court might have ruled differently.” Campbell v. Astrue, 596 F.Supp.2d 446, 448 (D. Conn. 2009). The court must therefore “defer to the Commissioner's resolution of conflicting evidence, ” Cage v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 692 F.3d 118, 122 (2d Cir. 2012), and can only reject the Commissioner's findings of fact “if a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude otherwise, ” Brault v. Social Sec. Admin., 683 F.3d 443, 448 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Stated simply, “[i]f there is substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] determination, it must be upheld.” Selian, 708 F.3d at 417.

         Procedural History

         On March 28, 2015 and September 17, 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, respectively, pursuant to Title II and Title XVI of the Act, alleging an onset date of February 7, 2012. The claims were initially denied on June 10, 2015 and upon reconsideration on September 24, 2015. Thereafter, a hearing was held before an ALJ on January 25, 2017. On March 22, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's applications.

         In her decision, the ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims. At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of February 7, 2012. (Tr. 78.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (“COPD”) and major depressive disorder and a non-severe medically determinable impairment consisting of migraines. (Tr. 78.) At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P. (Tr. 79-80.) At Step Four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, subject to certain non-exertional limitations. (Tr. 81.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff does not have have the RFC to perform her past relevant work as a barista/counter attendant, machine packager, or counter clerk. (Tr. 87-88.) Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ concluded that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as a price marker, collator operator, or mail clerk. (Tr. 88-89.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

         On March 14, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, thereby rendering final the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 5.) This appeal followed.

         Discussion

         Plaintiff sets forth three bases upon which the Commissioner's decision should be reversed. She first asserts that the ALJ incorrectly determined that Plaintiff's carpel tunnel syndrome and sciatica are not medically determinable impairments. She next asserts that the ALJ violated the “treating physician rule” by assigning insufficient weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians Drs. Enenge A'Bodjedi and Kirsten Hohmann. Lastly, Plaintiff submits that the ALJ incorrectly formulated Plaintiff's RFC. She claims that she should have been limited to light exertion work and to work involving no public interaction. These issues are addressed seriatim.

         Whether Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Determination that Plaintiff's Carpel Tunnel Syndrome and Sciatica Are Not Medically Determinable Impairments

         Pursuant to the regulations established by the Commissioner, “a medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521. The impairment must therefore “be established by objective medical evidence from an acceptable medical source, ” not the claimant's own “statement of symptoms” or “a diagnosis or medical opinion.” Id. § 404.1521. Citing substantially these same standards, [2] the ALJ found that Plaintiff's “back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome are not medically determinable impairments due to a lack of objective evidence.” (Tr. 78.) Plaintiff asserts that this finding is error.

         Carpel ...


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