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Benoit v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 14, 2019

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


          William I. Garfinkel United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Kathleen Marie Benoit's, application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). 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 this case for a rehearing. [Doc. #11]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order affirming his decision. [Doc. #12]. After careful consideration of the arguments raised by both parties, and thorough review of the administrative record, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion to reverse/remand and denies 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 application on December 14, 2014, alleging an onset of disability as of April 13, 2015. Her claim was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On December 4, 2017, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Thomas Merrill (“the ALJ”). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. On February 14, 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 24, 2019, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. This action followed.

         Plaintiff was fifty-one years old and six months on the alleged onset of disability date. (R. 299). She completed college with a degree in international development. (R. 285). Plaintiff has past employment as a legislative assistant, fundraising assistant for a hospital, and as a philanthropy assistant and coordinator for a non-profit. (R. 285). Plaintiff's complete medical history is set forth in the Statement of Facts filed by the parties. [Doc. ##11-1; 12-1]. 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 that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 13, 2015. (R. 17). At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative spondylolisthesis (lumbar spine); s/p bilateral knee replacements; and osteoarthritis. (R. 17). 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. 24). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity[3]:

to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 4041567(b) except she is able to lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and up to 10 pounds frequently; to stand and/or walk for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; and to sit for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She is able to climb stairs and ramps frequently and to ladders, ropes and scaffolds occasionally. She is able to frequently balance and perform stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling occasionally. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibration, and hazards, including unprotected heights and hazardous machinery.

(R. 25).

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work an administrative assistant and/or fundraiser.[4] (R. 30). The ALJ did not proceed to Step Five. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from April 13, 2015, her alleged onset date, through February 14, 2018, the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. 31).


         Plaintiff raises several arguments in support of her Motion to Reverse, ...

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