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Paratore v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

February 22, 2008

BRENDA PARATORE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe U.S. District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Brenda Paratore alleges that hyperthyroidism, intestinal disorders, and affective disorder have disabled her, and challenges the denial of benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security. Having reviewed the administrative record, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

II. Procedural History

After Paratore filed for social security disability insurance ("SSDI") and supplemental security ("SSI") benefits in June 2002, her application was denied, and a hearing was conducted by Administrative Law Judge Steven De Monbreum (ALJ). (Tr. at 70-72, 323-97).*fn1 In November 2004, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits, which became the Commissioner's final determination when the Appeals Council denied review on August 26, 2005. (Tr. at 6-8).

On October 26, 2005, Paratore brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of the Commissioner's final determination. The Commissioner then filed an answer and a certified administrative transcript, Paratore filed a brief, and the Commissioner responded.

III. Contentions

Paratore contends that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. She claims the ALJ erroneously (1) determined that her alleged mental impairments did not meet or equal the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart B, Appendix 1, Part A Section 12.04 and Part B Section 112.04; (2) improperly disregarded the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician; and (3) improperly evaluated her credibility. The Commissioner counters that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.

IV. Facts

The evidence in this case is undisputed and the court adopts the parties' factual recitations. See Pl.'s Br. at 3-5; Def.'s Br. at 2.

V. Discussion

A. Standard and Scope of Review

When reviewing the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. 405(g),*fn2 the court "must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision." Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 384 (2d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). It does not determine de novo whether a claimant is disabled. See Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 122 (2d Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). Although the Commissioner is ultimately responsible for determining a claimant's eligibility, the actual disability determination is made by an ALJ, and that decision is subject to judicial review on appeal. A court may not affirm an ALJ's decision if it reasonably doubts whether the proper legal standards were applied, even if it appears to be supported by substantial evidence. See Pollard v. Halter, 377 F.3d 183, 188-89 (2d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted); Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir. 1987). "Failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal." Pollard, 377 F.3d at 189 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

A court's factual review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to the determination of whether substantial evidence in the record supports the decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991). "Substantial evidence ... means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Schaal v. Apfel, 134 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)) (internal quotation marks omitted). It must be "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence scattered throughout the administrative record. Williams ex rel. Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). An ALJ must set forth the crucial factors justifying his findings with sufficient specificity to allow a court to determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision. See Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984). "To determine on appeal whether an ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams, 859 F.2d at 258 (citations omitted). However, a reviewing court cannot substitute its interpretation of the administrative record for that of the Commissioner if the record contains substantial support for the ALJ's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

The court has the authority to affirm, reverse, or modify a final decision of the Commissioner with or without remand. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Butts, 388 F.3d at 385. Remand is warranted where there are gaps in the record and further development of the evidence is needed, or where the ALJ has applied an improper legal standard. See Butts, 388 F.3d at 385; Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 82-83 (2d Cir. 1999); Parker v. Harris, 626 F.2d 225, 235 (2d Cir. 1980). Remand is particularly appropriate where further findings or explanation will clarify the rationale for the ALJ's decision. Pratts v. Chater, 94 F.3d 34, 39 (2d Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). By contrast, reversal and remand solely for calculation of benefits is appropriate when there is "persuasive proof of disability" and further development of the record would not serve any purpose. Rosa, 168 F.3d at 83; Parker, 626 F.2d at 235; Carroll v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 705 F.2d 638, 644 (2d Cir. 1983) (reversal without remand for additional evidence particularly appropriate where payment of benefits already delayed for four years and remand would likely result in further lengthening the "painfully slow process" of determining disability). However, absent sufficient evidence of disability, delay alone is not a valid basis for remand solely for calculation of benefits. See Bush v. Shalala, 94 F.3d 40, 46 (2d Cir. 1996) (citation omitted).

B. Five-Step Disability Determination

A plaintiff seeking Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits is disabled if she can establish that she is unable "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 twelve months ...." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A)*fn3 (emphasis added).

The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate SSDI and SSI claims. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Step One requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If so, she is not considered disabled. However, if she is not engaged in SGA, Step Two requires that the ALJ determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant is found to suffer from a severe impairment, Step Three requires that the ALJ determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). The claimant is presumptively disabled if the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. See Ferraris, 728 F.2d at 584. If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, Step Four requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) precludes the performance of her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). At Step Five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can do any other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

The claimant has the burden of showing that she cannot perform past relevant work. Ferraris, 728 F.2d at 584. However, once she has met that burden, the ALJ can deny benefits only by showing, with specific reference to medical evidence, that she can perform some less demanding work. See White v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 910 F.2d 64, 65 (2d Cir. 1990); Ferraris, 728 F.2d at 584. In making this showing, the ALJ must consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, past work experience, and transferability of skills, to determine if she can perform other work existing in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); see New York v. Sullivan, 906 F.2d 910, 913 (2d Cir. 1990).

In this case, the ALJ found that Paratore satisfied Step One because she had not worked since September 15, 1999. (Tr. 20, 24, 26, 28). In Step Two, the ALJ determined that she suffered from major depressive disorder. (Tr. 25, 28).*fn4 In Step Three, the ALJ determined that this impairment failed to meet or equal a combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to one listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. (Tr. 25, 28). In Step Four, the ALJ determined that Paratore retained the RFC to perform work at any exertional level, subject to the following non-exertional limitations: marked limitations in maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods; mild limitations in her ability to remember locations and work-like procedures, understanding, remembering, and carrying out short, simple instructions, performing activities within a schedule, maintaining regular attendance, and being punctual, sustaining an ordinary routine work setting; and moderate limitations in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed or complex instructions, work with or near others without being distracted by them, complete a normal workday or workweek, perform at a consistent pace, interact appropriately with the public, and respond appropriately. (Tr. at 27-19). Based on vocational expert testimony which he deemed consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform her past work as a housekeeper and janitor. (Tr. 27-29). In Step Five, the ALJ found that even if Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, she could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. at 27, 29). Consequently, he found Paratore not disabled and denied benefits. (Tr. at 29).

C. Analysis

1. Plaintiff's Mental Impairment

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in determining that her mental impairment did not meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that her mental impairment met Listing 12.04 and 112.04. Initially, the Court rejects Plaintiff's argument that her impairment met Listing 112.04, because this listing applies to children under the age of eighteen. Plaintiff was age thirty-one at the time of the ALJ's decision, and she was over the age of eighteen at all relevant intervals in this proceeding. (See Tr. at 23, 230).

Listing 12.04 provides:

12.04 Affective disorders: Characterized by a disturbance of mood, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome. Mood refers to a prolonged emotion that colors the whole psychic life; ...


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