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Corchado v. Astrue

March 5, 2008

DIANE R. CORCHADO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

Plaintiff Diane Corchado initiated this action pursuant to section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits. Both parties have filed motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Items 6 and 7). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is denied, plaintiff's motion is granted, and the case is remanded to the Commissioner.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on June 9, 1953 (Tr. 64).*fn1 She applied for disability insurance benefits on November 26, 2003, alleging disability since October 1, 2002 due to back and leg pain, diabetes, asthma, headaches, and arthritis (id.). Her application was denied initially on May 7, 2004 (Tr. 38 ). She requested a hearing, which was held on June 15, 2005 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Douglas W. Abruzzo (Tr. 383-439). Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by attorney Thomas Feron, Esq. Mr. Timothy Janikowski, a vocational expert, also testified at the hearing.

In a written decision dated July 26, 2005 (Tr. 16-26), the ALJ found that plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Following the sequential evaluation process outlined in the Social Security Administration Regulations (see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520), the ALJ reviewed the medical evidence and determined that plaintiff's impairments, including obesity, lumbar disc disease, asthma, migraine headaches, and bipolar disorder, while severe, did not meet or equal the criteria of an impairment listed in the Regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings") (Tr. 17, 24). The ALJ then determined that while plaintiff's impairments precluded her from performing any of her past relevant work (including receptionist, nursing assistant, dialysis technician, psychiatric aide, home attendant, and telemarketer), she had the residual functional capacity for a wide range of light work,*fn2 reduced by the following limitations: lifting and carrying objects weighing more than 20 pounds, more than occasional stooping or crouching, any climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds, more than occasional pushing/pulling with the lower extremities including the operation of pedals requiring more than five pounds of pressure, even moderate exposure to fumes, odors, gases, hot or cold temperature extremes, extremes of wetness/humidity; unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, or environments with poor ventilation, or more than occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, or the general public . . . . Tr. 22.

In making this determination, the ALJ referred to the opinions of two of plaintiff's treating physicians and her treating psychiatrist, which indicated a residual functional capacity of "less than [a] full range of sedentary work activity on a sustained basis" (id.). However, the ALJ found these opinions to be "inconsistent with the clinical and objective findings of record" (id.), and afforded them "minimal weight" (Tr. 23). Instead, the ALJ relied heavily on the report of Dr. Steven Dina, who conducted a one-time consultative examination on February 10, 2004 (see Tr. at 17-19, 21-23), which placed "limitations on the claimant consistent with at least light work activity" (Tr. 18).

The ALJ also considered plaintiff's allegations and testimony regarding her functional limitations, but found plaintiff to be "not fully credible" in this regard (Tr. 25). Considering the plaintiff's age of 52 years old, her education level,*fn3 and the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that plaintiff could perform (id.). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final determination on October 10, 2006, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 4-7 ).

Plaintiff then filed this action on December 8, 2006, and both parties moved for judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's determination should be reversed because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinions of the plaintiff's treating sources, and failed to properly assess plaintiff's credibility (see Item 6). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's determination must be upheld because it is supported by substantial evidence in the record (see Item 8).

For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's motion is denied, and plaintiff's motion is granted.

DISCUSSION

I. Scope of Judicial Review

The Social Security Act states that upon district court review of the Commissioner's decision, "[t]he findings of the Commissioner . . . as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is defined as evidence which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938), quoted in Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Halloran v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 28, 31 (2d Cir. 2004). Under these standards, the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited, and the reviewing court may not try a case de novo or substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The court's inquiry is "whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached" by the Commissioner. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982), quoted in Winkelsas v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575513, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. February 14, 2000).

However, "[b]efore the insulation of the substantial evidence test comes into play, it must first be determined that the facts of a particular case have been evaluated in the light of correct legal standards." Klofta v. Mathews, 418 F. Supp. 1139, 1141 (E.D. Wis. 1976), quoted in Gartmann v. Secretary fo Health and Human Services, 633 F. Supp. 671, 680 (E.D.N.Y. 1986). The Commissioner's determination cannot be upheld when it is based on an erroneous view of the law that improperly disregards highly probative evidence. Smith v. Massanari, 2002 WL 34242375, at *4 (W.D.N.Y. March 17, 2002) (citing Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999)).

II. Standard for Determining Eligibility for Disability Benefits

To be eligible for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, plaintiff must show that she suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment "which can be expected to result in death or 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), and is "of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Regulations set forth a five-step process to be followed when a disability claim comes before an ALJ for evaluation of the claimant's eligibility for benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is not, the ALJ must decide if the claimant has a "severe" impairment, which is an impairment or combination of impairments that "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . ." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant's impairment is severe, the ALJ then determines whether it meets or equals the criteria of an impairment found in the Listings. If the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant will be found to be disabled. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth step requires the ALJ to determine if, notwithstanding the impairment, the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work. Finally, if ...


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