United States District Court, D. Connecticut
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
[“SSDI”] and supplemental security income
October 27, 2015, the plaintiff filed applications for SSDI
and SSI, claiming that he had been disabled since October 23,
2013, due herniated discs and diabetes. (See
Certified Transcript of Administrative Proceedings, dated
February 6, 2019 [“Tr.”] 293-310, 341). The
plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon
reconsideration. (Tr. 129-30, 151-52). On July 11, 2017, a
hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge
[“ALJ”] Eskunder Boyd at which the plaintiff and
a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 79-114). On August 10,
2017, the ALJ entered a partially favorable decision finding
that the plaintiff had performed substantial gainful activity
until January 1, 2015 but was disabled from that date through
the date of his decision. (Tr. 153-65). On October 6, 2017,
the Appeals Council issued its Notice of Appeals Council
Action (Tr. 229-37), and on March 23, 2018, the Appeals
Council remanded the case back to the ALJ. (Tr. 170-76). The
ALJ held a second hearing on August 6, 2018, at which the
plaintiff and another vocational expert testified. (Tr.
34-78). On August 22, 2018, the ALJ issued an unfavorable
decision denying the plaintiff's claim for benefits. (Tr.
7-20). The plaintiff filed a request for review of the
hearing decision (Tr. 290-92), and on October 10, 2018, the
Appeals Council denied the request, thereby rendering the
ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
December 6, 2018, the plaintiff filed his complaint in this
pending action (Doc. No. 1), and on February 7, 2019, the
defendant filed a certified copy of the Administrative
Record. (Doc. No. 15). On March 6, 2019, the parties
consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate
Judge, and the case was transferred accordingly. (Doc. No.
18). On April 8, 2019, the plaintiff filed his Motion to
Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 19), with
brief (Doc. No. 19-1 [“Pl.'s Mem.”]), and
Statement of Material Facts (Doc. No. 21; see Doc.
No. 20) in support. On June 7, 2019, the defendant filed his
Motion to Affirm (Doc. No. 22), with brief (Doc. No. 22-1
[“Def.'s Mem.”]) and a Statement of Material
Facts (Doc. No. 22-2) in support. On June 21, 2019, the
plaintiff filed a reply brief. (Doc. No. 23).
reasons stated below, the plaintiff's Motion to Reverse
the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 19) is GRANTED
such that this case is remanded consistent with this Ruling,
and the defendant's Motion to Affirm (Doc. No. 22) is
Court presumes the parties' familiarity with the
plaintiff's medical and work history, which is thoroughly
discussed in the parties' Statement of Facts. (Doc. Nos.
21, 22-2). The Court cites only to the portions of the record
that are necessary to explain this ruling.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
the five-step evaluation process,  the ALJ found that the
plaintiff met the insured status requirements through
December 31, 2019 (Tr. 13) and has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since October 23, 2013, the alleged onset
date. (Tr. 13, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et
seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
two, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had the following
severe impairments: plantar fasciitis, chronic right knee
instability, multilevel degenerative disc disease, diabetes,
and peripheral neuropathy (Tr. 13, citing 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)), but the plaintiff
did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that
met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
(Tr. 13-14, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d),
404.1525, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
concluded that the plaintiff had the residual functional
capacity [“RFC”] to perform light work as defined
in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except
that he could stand/walk up to four hours total and sit for
six hours; he required a sit-stand option wherein he could
sit for 30 minutes, alternate to a standing position for five
minutes, and then resume sitting; and he could not use his
lower extremities to operate foot controls and should never
climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, or stairs. (Tr. 14-18).
Additionally, he could occasionally climb ramps, balance,
stoop, and crouch and should never kneel or crawl.
(Id.). He could frequently handle and finger and
should not work in exposure to temperature extremes or
wetness. (Id.). Additionally, the plaintiff required
the use of a cane for ambulation. (Id.).
four, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was unable to
perform any of his past relevant work (Tr. 18, citing 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965), but he retained
the RFC to perform other work. (Tr. 30, citing 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969 and 416.969(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 “[p]arking [l]ot [a]ttendant[, ]”
“[t]icket [s]eller [, ]” and “[p]hotocopy
[m]achine” operator. (Tr. 19). Accordingly, the ALJ
concluded that the plaintiff was not under a disability at
any time from October 23, 2013, through the date of his
decision. (Tr. 31, citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g)
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).
plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC finding was
unsupported by substantial evidence because he failed to
analyze properly Dr. Seely's opinion evidence in
accordance with the Regulations. (Pl.'s Mem. at 3-8; Doc.
No. 23, at 1-2). Similarly, the plaintiff claims that the
ALJ's RFC finding failed to consider adequately the
symptoms of the plaintiff's diabetes and neuropathy,
which the ALJ concluded were severe impairments. (Pl.'s
Mem. at 8-10). Finally, the plaintiff maintains that, in
formulating the RFC, the ALJ failed to develop the record as
ordered by the Appeals Council. (Pl.'s Mem. at 10-12).
the plaintiff's last argument first, the Court agrees and
concludes that the ALJ failed to comply with the Appeals
Council's remand order to develop the record. This error
was compounded by the ALJ's improper treatment and
analysis of Dr. Seely's opinion. As a result, a remand is
THE ALJ FAILED TO COMPLY WITH THE APPEALS COUNCIL'S
REMAND ORDER AND FAILED TO DEVELOP THE RECORD
March 23, 2018, the Appeals Council issued its notice
remanding the case to the ALJ [“Remand Order”].
(Tr. 170-76). In the Remand Order, the Appeals Council
concluded that “[s]ubstantial evidence does not support
the [ALJ]'s [RFC] for the entire period at issue,
particularly the standing, walking, and postural
limitation.” (Tr. 173). In reaching this conclusion,
the Appeals Council noted that, “[i]n support of the
[RFC] finding in this case, the [ALJ] gave weight to the
medical source opinions of James Seely, M.D., ” but
such statements did “not represent his own opinion
about [the plaintiff's] work-related abilities[, ]”
but rather, were based on the plaintiff's “own
reports about what [he could] do.” (Tr. 173).