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Stubbs v. Commissioner of Social Security

March 5, 2008

D'NIQUE R. STUBBS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff commenced this action seeking judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Plaintiff requests that this Court reverse the decision and remand to the Administrative Law Judge to further develop the record. The Commissioner seeks to affirm the decision. This Court has jurisdiction to review an unfavorable decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's decision is supported by substantial evidence and denies Plaintiff's request to remand the case for further consideration.

I. Background

A. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed for SSI benefits on January 21, 2004, alleging disability due to back injuries, diffuse pain throughout her body, fibromyalgia, chronic headaches, and affective disorder. (Tr. at 82).*fn1 This application was denied, and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 25-28, 31-32). A hearing was held on September 20, 2005, and on October 26, 2005, the ALJ issued a decision which found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. at 12-22, 262-94). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on May 27, 2006. (Tr. at 5-7). This action followed.

B. Contentions

Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. She claims the ALJ erroneously (1) disregarded the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physicians; and (2) failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's credibility. (Pl.'s Br., Dkt. No. 8, at 7-22). The Commissioner counters that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. (Def.'s Br., Dkt. No. 10, at 5-13).

C. Facts

The evidence in this case is undisputed and the court adopts the parties' factual recitations. (Pl.'s Br. at 3-7; Def.'s Br. at 3).

II. Analysis

A. Standards 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. SeeCurry 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. SeePollard 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. SeeFerraris 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. SeeButts, 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 ...


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