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HARTFIEL v. APFEL

December 14, 2001

HARTFIEL
v.
APFEL


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer, Chief Judge United States District Court.

DECISION AND ORDER

This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security that plaintiff, Elaine Hartfiel, is not entitled to disability insurance benefits. Both plaintiff and the Commissioner now move for judgment on the pleadings. See F. R. Civ. P. 12(c). As discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff initially applied for Social Security disability insurance ("SSDI") benefits on March 20, 1995. Her claimed disability was depression. Plaintiff's request was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits on July 9, 1996. The applications were consolidated, and a hearing was ultimately held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ").

The ALJ granted plaintiff's application for SSI benefits, finding that plaintiff was disabled as of July 1, 1996, but not disabled before that date. Because plaintiff's insured status expired on December 31, 1989, the ALJ denied plaintiff's SSDI application.*fn1 The Appeals Council denied review, and plaintiff commenced this action. This case was then remanded to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on November 18, 1997, in order to locate the tape of the hearing.

A new hearing was held on June 9, 1998, and the ALJ again granted plaintiff's SSI claim but denied plaintiff's SSDI claim. The appeals council denied review, and the case was reopened in this Court.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff argues that the medical evidence establishes that she was, in fact, disabled prior to the expiration of her insured status. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. There is no dispute as to the date plaintiff's insured status expired. In determining whether plaintiff was entitled to receive SSI and SSDI benefits, the ALJ proceeded through the required five-step inquiry. See Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774 (2d Cir. 1999), 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, 416.920. At the first step of this inquiry, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 28, 1983. (T. 15) Next, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from depression, a severe impairment that significantly limited her ability to do basic work activities. (T. 15);*fn2 see Tejada, 167 F.3d at 774. However, the ALJ found that the medical evidence of record did not establish that plaintiff's depression was sufficiently severe prior to December 31, 1989. (T. 18) Thus, plaintiff was not eligible to receive SSDI benefits. The ALJ then proceeded through the remaining three steps of the inquiry, finding that plaintiff was disabled as of July 1, 1996, and eligible to receive SSI benefits. (T. 18-19)

The Commissioner's decision that plaintiff was ineligible to receive SSDI benefits must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Thus, "[i]t is not the function of a reviewing court to decide de novo whether a claimant was disabled." Melville v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999). Therefore, the Court must determine whether the ALJ's determination that plaintiff was not disabled prior to the expiration of her insured status is supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiff carries the initial burden of establishing that she suffered from a continuing disability prior to December 31, 1989. Arnone v. Bowen, 882 F.2d 34, 38-39 (2d Cir. 1989). An examination of the record, including the medical evidence submitted by plaintiff, supports the Commissioner's decision that plaintiff was not disabled prior to 1989.

Plaintiff was last formally employed in 1983. Plaintiff testified that she was sexually harassed by a supervisor at work. The stress of the encounters with her supervisor led plaintiff to take disability leave on November 7, 1983. A physician, Dr. Balakrishnan, found that plaintiff was unable to work, indicating that her diagnosis was dysthymic disorder. (T. 172) Plaintiff continued to be evaluated by her former employer's medical department. On January 1, 1984, plaintiff was seen by Dr. T. Wibberly Clark.*fn3 Dr. Clark reported that plaintiff was:

still slightly depressed. Should soon start work in my opinion. Significant on the job interpersonal stresses per employee. States own psychiatrist does not recommend return to work so far.

(T. 180) On February 7, 1984, Dr. Clark reported that plaintiff "now states she is no longer depressed, but very fearful of work and describes repeated confrontation." (T. 180) Plaintiff was described as "not ready per own psychiatrist," and was diagnosed with depression. Plaintiff decided to take "early separation." Id.

Apparently, plaintiff was out of work for six months. Plaintiff reported that when she attempted to return to her previous employer, she was informed that no positions were available. (T. 110). Plaintiff later became pregnant and was "sick with blood clots." Id. Plaintiff never returned to her previous employment, although she did care for her elderly aunt and uncle from 1987 to 1995. Plaintiff went to their home five or six days a week, for four or five hours. (T. 62) Plaintiff kept them company, took them to lunch, the store, the doctor, and ...


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