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June 21, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR Marrero, United States District Judge.


Plaintiff Maria Morillo ("Morillo") brings this action under §§ 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), to review a final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying her application for disability benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Decision and Order.


A. Procedural History

Morillo filed for disability insurance benefits on August 22, 1995. Tr. at 95-98 and 127-29.*fn1 In her application, Morillo described her disabling conditions as hypertension, allergies, degenerative joint disease, anemia, and thyroid problems. Tr. at 149. Her application was denied on October 20, 1995, and her request for reconsideration on April 10, 1996. Tr. at 139 and 144. Morillo requested an administrative hearing, which was heard by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Kenneth Levin on April 9, 1997. Tr. at 34-37, 148.

On April 29, 1997 the ALJ issued his decision, denying Morillo's application for disability insurance benefits. Tr. at 15-30. The ALJ found that Morillo retained residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work.*fn2 Tr. at 29. The Appeals Council denied Morillo's request for review on November 20, 1998, and the decision of the ALJ thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. at 3-4.

On January 14, 1999, Morillo filed this complaint. On September 15, 2000, she moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings, seeking reversal of the Commissioner's decision, or, in the alternative, a remand to the Commissioner for a new hearing. On November 17, 2000, the Commissioner cross-moved for affirmance of the ALJ's decision and dismissal of the complaint.

B. Morillo's Personal History

Morillo is a forty-eight year-old woman who was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States in 1979. Tr. at 47. She is educated through the 10th grade of high school and her native language is Spanish. Id. She understands "a little" English but is not able to hold a conversation in English. Id. On July 25, 1995, Morillo quit her job as a home attendant after having worked in this capacity for four years. Tr. at 48. Previously, she had worked for eleven years as a quality control inspector of sewed clothing. Id.

C. Morillo's Medical History

In February 1995, Morillo underwent surgery, entailing tracheostomy, uvuloplasty, and septoplasty, to remove excessive growth of her soft palate and uvula, which was impairing her respiration. Tr. at 76 and 234. In her testimony before the ALJ, Morillo complained about difficulty breathing, asthma, poor circulation, leg swelling, sudden urges to fall asleep, and depression. Tr. at 50. Morillo further testified that she suffers from "middle, lower back pain" that "feels like the bones [are] rubbing against each other." Tr. at 51. She said that this pain compels her to alternate sitting and standing throughout the day because she cannot withstand either for longer than a half-hour at a time. Tr. at 72-73. When walking, Morillo said she experiences such severe pain that she must use a cane outdoors and pause at least four times in one block. Tr. at 50 and 62-63. Finally, Morillo stated that she takes medication for depression, sees a therapist, and cries "very often." Tr. at 65-66 and 68.

Morillo was treated by Dr. Jesus Hernandez between March 1994 and March 1996. Tr. at 328. Although Dr. Hernandez's notes are largely illegible, he appears to have treated Morillo primarily for difficulty breathing, asthma, hypertension, swelling of the legs, chronic allergies, and depression. Tr. at 58-68. Between July and September 1995, Dr. Hernandez wrote three notes for Morillo in which he stated that her medical conditions precluded her from working. Tr. at 220-22. Dr. Hernandez cited hypertension, sleep apnea, degenerative joint disease, chronic allergies, rhinitis, and anemia as the medical conditions responsible for Morillo's disability. Id. On March 13, 1997, Dr. Hernandez completed a form letter for Morillo's attorney in which he opined that she could not work due to her difficulty breathing and her constant fatigue. Tr. at 328.

Morillo also was treated at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center for asthma, gastritis, stress incontinence, hoarseness, joint pain, back pain, and leg edema. Treatment notes date from January 1996 through January 1997. Tr. at 318-327.

Dr. Claude Laniado at the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health treated Morillo for depression. Tr. at 280. His treatment notes document poor self-esteem and strained family relationships. Tr. at 280-95. Dr. Laniado prescribed Prozac and Klonopin for Morillo. Tr. at 282-86.

In October 1996, Dr. Laniado evaluated Morillo's mental residual functional capacity. The assessment measured workplace skills such as understanding and memory, concentration and persistence, social interactions, and adaption. Tr. at 228-31. On eighteen of twenty categories, Dr. Laniado rated Morillo as "markedly impaired," the most severe of the available assessment categories. Id. In a cover note attached to the results of the assessment, Dr. Laniado states that "overall there is some improvement, but not enough to work at this time." Tr. at 228.

Morillo was examined by several Social Security Administration ("SSA") consultative physicians Dr. Peter Graham, Dr. ...

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