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MEJIA v. BARNHART

April 16, 2003

CARMEN MEJIA, PLAINTIFF
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nina Gershon, United States District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Carmen Mejia applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits on May 9, 2000. Her application was denied on September 15, 2000. Plaintiff promptly requested a hearing to appeal that denial. On July 26, 2001, plaintiff appeared, represented by counsel, before Administrative Law Judge Irving Fleigler ("ALJ"). By decision dated March 23, 2002, the ALJ denied plaintiff benefits based on a de novo review of the record. The parties agree that the ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner as of May 22, 2002. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). plaintiff commenced this action on April 30, 2002. On December 2, 2002, defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") moved for judgment on the pleadings on the ground that the ALJ's determination that plaintiff was not disabled was supported by substantial evidence. On January 2, 2003, plaintiff submitted her opposition to the Commissioner's motion and moved for judgment on the pleadings and for a remand solely for an award of benefits.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, the findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, "if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Substantial evidence is such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Where a court finds that substantial evidence exists to support the agency's determination, the decision will be upheld, even where contrary evidence exists. DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1182 (2d Cir. 1998) (affirming agency determination where substantial evidence existed for both sides). This standard applies to findings of fact as well as to inferences and conclusions drawn from such facts. D'Amato v. Apfel, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9459, at *10, 2001 WL 776945, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), aff'd 42 Fed. Appx. 415 (2002).

A district court reviews de novo whether the correct legal standard is applied and whether or not the ALJ's decision was based on the application of that standard. Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999); Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987); Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984). Therefore, where an error of law has been made that might affect the disposition of the case, a court cannot fulfill its duty by simply deferring to the factual findings of the ALJ.

In order to establish an entitlement to benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must establish that he or she has a disability as defined by 42 U.S.C. § 423. Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1998). Thus a claimant must establish an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant will be determined eligible for disability benefits only if his or her physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to perform his or her previous work, but cannot, considering claimant's age. education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which claimant lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for the claimant, or whether the claimant would be hired if he or she applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). In making an eligibility determination, the ALJ must consider four sources of evidence: "(1) the objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses or medical opinions based on such facts; (3) subjective evidence of pain or disability testified to by the claimant or others; and (4) the claimant's educational background, age, and work experience." Brown v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 59, 62 (2d Cir. 1999).

In evaluating an application for disability insurance, an ALJ must follow the five-step procedure for finding disability set forth in the agency regulations implementing the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Diaz v. Shalala, 59 F.3d 307, 31 ln.2 (2d Cir. 1995). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If not, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" that significantly limits his or her ability to engage in basic work activities. If the claimant does suffer from such an impairment, the ALJ must determine whether this impairment "meets or equals a listed impairment" as contained in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If this third criteria is satisfied, the claimant is presumed to be disabled. If, however, the third criteria is not met, a presumption of disability does not arise, and the ALJ must determine whether or not the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work. If this fourth criteria is satisfied, the fifth step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing any other work.

In this case, the ALJ, after proceeding through each of the steps listed above, determined that plaintiff was not disabled. First, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. This finding is not disputed by plaintiff. Second, the ALJ concluded that the evidence established that plaintiff suffered from several severe impairments, including "affective disorder and a history of pain in the lower extremities." Third, the ALJ found that "these impairments are severe within the meaning of the Regulations but are not severe enough to meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in Appendix 1." Fourth, the ALJ found that plaintiff retains the physical residual capacity to perform her past relevant work.

Plaintiff objects to the ALJ's findings on the grounds that: (a) the ALJ failed to make findings of fact in relation to plaintiff's functional capacity; (b) the ALJ failed to fairly evaluate and develop the evidence supporting plaintiff's claims; and (c) the ALJ failed to provide an adequate basis for his rejection of plaintiff's allegations of limited capacity.

Plaintiff in this case alleges disability beginning on August 9, 1998 from depression and left knee, right ankle, and left arm pain. Plaintiff, who is 60 years old and a native of the Dominican Republic, was formerly employed as a sewing machine operator. Her employment history includes two years as a home health care attendant, three years as a piece worker in a garment factory, and almost fourteen years as a finisher in a garment factory. Plaintiff's last date of employment was on or about January 31, 1998, when she was laid off for non-performance based reasons.

1. Plaintiff's Physical Capacity

The ALJ in this case found that plaintiff did not suffer from an objective medical condition that could reasonably be expected to produce disabling pain. This determination is supported by substantial evidence. No reports by treating physicians indicate that plaintiff was at any point unable to engage in work for the period necessary to establish disability. Five reports by examining physicians, including four from treating physicians, suggest that plaintiff did not suffer from any objective physical impairment at all. In addition, at least two examining physicians found plaintiff's physical complaints to be greater than the objective medical findings. The ALJ properly considered evidence in the record that plaintiff's pain was adequately controlled by medication. He also properly considered evidence of plaintiff's ability to engage in daily activities such as twice daily preparing her own meals, regular church attendance, and independent travel to and from medical appointments by public transportation. Since substantial evidence in the record, including reports by plaintiff's treating physicians, supports the ALJ's determination that plaintiff is not disabled, that determination is affirmed in relation to plaintiff's physical capabilities.

2. Plaintiff's Mental Capacity

While the record in this case does contain substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's findings regarding plaintiff's claimed physical impairments, the opposite conclusion must be reached in relation to plaintiff's claimed mental impairments.

In August 2000, plaintiff was seen by a consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Margaret Chu, for evaluation for depression. Plaintiff complained to Dr. Chu of poor sleep. loneliness, depression, and nightmares. She denied any delusions, paranoia, auditory or visual hallucinations or suicidal ideation. Dr. Chu diagnosed plaintiff with adjustment disorder with mixed features and moderate anxiety and depression. While Dr. Chu found that plaintiff suffered some limitations in her ability to sustain concentration, socially interact, and adapt as a result of her anxiety and depression, she found no significant limitations in plaintiff's understanding or memory, judgment or reality orientation. On September 13, 2000, a consulting psychologist reviewed plaintiff's medical record and Dr. Chu's report and found that ...


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