Vasquez v. Berryhill
ORDER granting 18 Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner; denying 25 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings for the reasons set forth in the attached Ruling. The Clerk shall enter judgment in the Plaintiff's favor and close this case. Signed by Judge William I. Garfinkel on 2/12/18. (Cates, S)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of
RULING ON PENDING MOTIONS
This is an administrative appeal following the denial of the plaintiff, Soraida Vasquez’s,
application for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI supplemental security
income benefits (“SSI”). It is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).1
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
her case for a rehearing. [Doc. # 18]. The Commissioner, in turn, has moved for an order
Under the Social Security Act, the “Commissioner of Social Security is directed to make
findings of fact, and decisions as to the rights of any individual applying for a payment under
[the Act].” 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(b)(1) and 1383(c)(1)(A). The Commissioner’s authority to make
such findings and decisions is delegated to administrative law judges (“ALJs”). See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.929; 416.1429. Claimants can in turn appeal an ALJ’s decision to the Social Security
Appeals Council. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.967; 416.1467. If the appeals council declines review or
affirms the ALJ opinion, the claimant may appeal to the United States district court. Section
205(g) of the Social Security Act provides that “[t]he court shall have power to enter, upon the
pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision
of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.”
42 U.S.C § 405(g).
affirming her decision. [Doc. # 25]. The undersigned heard oral argument on February 7, 2018.2
For the following reasons, Plaintiff’s motion for an order reversing or remanding the ALJ’s
decision is granted, and the Commissioner’s motion for an order affirming that decision is
“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 (2d Cir. 1981). “The findings of the
Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, [are]
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 her 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). Further, 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).
At oral argument, counsel for both sides did an outstanding job. Counsel were well-prepared
and articulated their positions thoughtfully.
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)). Substantial evidence must be “more
than a scintilla or touch of proof here and there in the record.” Williams, 859 F.2d at 258.
Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI on November 16, 2012, alleging a
disability onset date of March 22, 2011. Her claims were denied at both the initial and
reconsideration levels. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On May 13, 2015, a hearing
was held before administrative law judge Jason Mastrangelo (the “ALJ”). On June 3, 2015, the
ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff’s claims. The Appeals Council denied review of the
ALJ’s unfavorable decision. This action followed.
Plaintiff was 47 years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 57). She has a
high school education and past work experience as a home health aide, assembly machine
operator, and certified nursing assistant. At oral argument, the parties stipulated to Plaintiff’s
medical history as set forth collectively in the briefing. The Court adopts the medical
chronology as represented and incorporates it by reference herein.
b. The ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process for assessing disability claims. At
step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the
alleged onset date. (R. 26). At step two, the ALJ found the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; partial left rotator cuff tear; degenerative joint
disease. (R. 26). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments. (R. 28). Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retains the following residual
Plaintiff can perform less than the full range of light work: she can lift and/or
carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can sit for 6
hours and stand or walk for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday. She cannot reach
overhead with the non-dominant left upper extremity, may occasionally reach
overhead with the right dominant upper extremity, and may occasionally operate
hand controls bilaterally. She may never crawl or climb ladders, rope, or
scaffolding. She can frequently climb ramps or stairs.
(R. 29-34). At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work.
(R. 34). Finally, at step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert to find that
there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform.
(R. 35). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled.
The Social Security Act defines disability as “[an] 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 for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ
must follow the Commissioner’s five-step evaluation process.4
Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the most a claimant can do in a work setting despite
her limitations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1); 416.945(a)(1).
The five steps 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. If so, and it meets the durational
requirements, the Commissioner will consider him or her 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
When, as it must, the Court keeps in mind the substantial evidence standard, this case is a
very close call. At oral argument, both sides were very well represented. In the final analysis,
because the Court cannot say that the ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by substantial
evidence, this matter must be remanded.
When determining a claimant’s RFC, the ALJ is required to take into account the
claimant’s reports of pain and other limitations. Since the ALJ is not required to accept the
claimant’s subjective complaints without question, the ALJ must weigh the credibility of the
claimant’s complaints in light of the other evidence of record. Taylor v. Astrue, No. 3:09-cv1049, 2010 WL 7865031, at *9 (D. Conn. Aug.31, 2010). The regulations set forth a two-step
process for this evaluation. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant suffers from a
medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms
alleged. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a); 416.929(a). Next, the ALJ must determine “the extent to
which [the claimant’s] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective
medical evidence and other evidence” of record. Id.
In making the RFC finding, the ALJ discounted Plaintiff’s credibility, stating as follows:
“medical evidence here does not fully support the claimant’s complaints and allegations of
disability.” (R. 30). The ALJ’s listed reasons for not finding Plaintiff fully credible include that
she engaged in only “conservative treatment” which did not include “a course of injections” or
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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (a)(4)(i)-(v); 416.920(a)(4)(i)(v). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, while the Commissioner bears
the burden of proof on this last step. McIntyre v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 146, 149 (2d Cir. 2014).
“under[going] surgery” for her cervical spine or left shoulder. (R. 32). These two findings are
The record clearly indicates that Plaintiff was proscribed, and was in fact treated with,
epidural steroid injections. (See R. 440-41, 463, 832). In addition, the record plainly reflects
that Plaintiff’s treatment providers recommended surgical treatment on several occasions. (See
R. 713, 717, 936, 940). Thus, the ALJ based his credibility assessment on a misreading of the
record that implies that Plaintiff’s limitations and impairments were less severe than they may in
fact have been. Therefore, the ALJ based his RFC assessment on an inaccurate reading of the
record. This faulty reading of the evidence calls into question the overall supportability of the
RFC. While the ALJ does list other reasons for discounting Plaintiff’s credibility, the opinion
indicates that the ALJ strongly considered Plaintiff’s “conservative” treatment history when
determining her RFC. For example, he declined to give controlling weight to the opinions of two
of Plaintiff’s treating physicians in part because he reasoned that the restrictive limitations they
assessed were inconsistent with Plaintiff’s treatment history. (See R. 33, 34, discounting the
opinions of Dr. Krishna and Dr. Capiola). Since the ALJ’s evaluation of the opinion evidence
and of Plaintiff’s subjective complaints was based on inaccurately reading the record in two
significant ways, the Court is unable to find that substantial evidence supports the RFC. See
Jazina v. Berryhill, No. 3:16-CV-01470 (JAM), 2017 WL 6453400, at *8 (D. Conn. Dec. 13,
2017) (explaining that “[a]lthough an ALJ’s credibility finding should stand even if he makes
some errors in that analysis, such a finding should not stand where the errors significantly detract
from the ALJ’s overall credibility analysis.”) (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks and
Accordingly, this matter is remanded to the Commissioner for additional proceedings.
Upon remand, the ALJ will make a new credibility finding that accurately takes into account the
record as a whole. The ALJ will also re-weigh the opinion evidence of record, again, taking into
account the entirety of Plaintiff’s treatment history.
For the reasons set forth above, Plaintiff’s motion to reverse, or in the alternative remand
[Doc. # 18] is GRANTED and the Commissioner’s motion to affirm [Doc. # 25] is DENIED.
This case is remanded to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent
with this Ruling.
This is not a recommended ruling. The consent of the parties allows this magistrate judge
to direct the entry of a judgment of the district court in accordance with the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. Appeals can be made directly to the appropriate United States Court of Appeals
from this judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(c). The Clerk’s Office is
instructed that, if any party appeals to this Court the decision made after this remand, any
subsequent social security appeal is to be assigned to the Magistrate Judge who issued the Ruling
that remanded the case.
SO ORDERED, this 12th
day of February, 2018, at Bridgeport, Connecticut.
/s/ William I. Garfinkel
WILLIAM I. GARFINKEL
United States Magistrate Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?