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