1. Plaintiff John M. Riley challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that he is not entitled to disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges he has been disabled since June 24, 2002, because of pain and limitations from a back condition. Plaintiff met the disability insured status requirements of the Act at all times pertinent to this claim.
2. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on February 11, 2003. His application was denied initially and, under the prototype model of handling claims without requiring a reconsideration step, Plaintiff was permitted to appeal directly to the ALJ. See 65 Fed. Reg. 81553 (Dec. 26, 2000). Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was held via video teleconference on February 10, 2004, before ALJ William B. Harmon, at which time Plaintiff and his attorney appeared. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on May 25, 2004, issued a decision finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled. On July 22, 2004, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.
3. On August 27, 2004, Plaintiff filed a Civil Complaint challenging Defendant's final decision and requesting the Court review the decision of the ALJ pursuant to Section 205(g) and 1631(c) (3) of the Act, modify the decision of Defendant, and grant DIB benefits to Plaintiff.*fn1 The Defendant filed an answer to Plaintiff's complaint on December 1, 2004, requesting the Court dismiss Plaintiff's complaint. Plaintiff submitted a Memorandum of Law in support of Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's unfavorable determination of employment disability on January 17, 2005. On February 22, 2005, Defendant filed a Memorandum of Law in Support of the Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings*fn2 pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After full briefing, this Court deemed oral argument unnecessary and took the motions under advisement.
4. A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 1383 (c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will only be reversed if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). "Substantial evidence" is evidence that amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed. 2d 842 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).
5. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F. Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and may not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).
6. The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, 416.920. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed. 2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.
7. This five-step process is detailed below:
First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged substantial gainful activity. If he is not, the [Commissioner] next considers whether the claimant has a "severe impairment" which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work active-ties. If the claimant has such an impairment, the third inquiry is whether, based solely on medical evidence, the claimant has an impairment which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. If the claimant has such an impairment, the [Commissioner] will consider him disabled without considering vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience; the [Commissioner] presumes that a claimant who is afflicted with a "listed" impairment is unable to perform substantial gainful activity. Assuming the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth inquiry is whether, despite the claimant's severe impairment, he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past work. Finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his past work, the [Commissioner] then determines whether there is other work which the claimant could perform.
Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982) (per curiam); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72,77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
8. While the claimant has the burden of proof as to the first four steps, the Commissioner has the burden of proof on the fifth and final step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5; Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step of this inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his physical ability, age, education, and work experience. Second, the Commissioner must determine whether jobs exist in the national economy that a person having the claimant's qualifications could perform. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed. 2d 66 (1983).
9. In this case, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to factual information as well as the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff met the non-disability requirements for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as set forth in Section 216(i) of the Social Security Act and is insured for benefits through the date of this decision (R. at 18);*fn3 (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of disability (R. at 18); (3) Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease and chronic back pain are considered "severe" based on the requirements of the regulations at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) (R. at 18); (4) These medically determinable impairments do not meet or medically exceed one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 (R. at 18); (5) The ALJ found the Plaintiff's allegations regarding his limitations not totally credible for the reasons set forth in the body of the decision (R. at 18); (6) Plaintiff has the following residual functional capacity: Plaintiff is able to perform a full range of light exertional activities in that he is able to lift and carry up to 20 pound occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. Plaintiff is able to stand and walk up to six hours in an eight hour workday and sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday, and is unlimited in his ability to push/pull in either his upper or lower extremities (R. at 18); (7) Plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work (R. at 18); (8) Plaintiff is a younger individual between the ages of 18 and 44 (R. at 18); (9) Plaintiff has a high school, or high school equivalent education (R. at 18); (10) Plaintiff has no transferable skills from semi-skilled work previously performed as described in the body of the decision (R. at 19); (11) Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform substantially all of the full range of light work (R. at 19); (12) Based on an exertional capacity for light work, and Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, the Medical-Vocational Rule 202.21, Appendix 2, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4 directs a conclusion of "not disabled" (R. at 19); (13) Plaintiff's capacity for light work is substantially intact and has not been compromised by any non-exertional limitations. Accordingly, using the above-cited rule(s) as a framework for decision-making, Plaintiff is not disabled (R. at 19). Ultimately, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time between his alleged onset of disability through the date of the decision (R. at 19).
10. Plaintiff's first challenge to the ALJ's decision is that he rejected the medical evidence provided by the treating physicians and relied instead on reports and opinions of either non-examining or non-treating sources. Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision was not supported by the substantial evidence of record.
According to the "treating physician's rule,"*fn4 the ALJ must give controlling weight to the treating physician's opinion when the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2); see also Green-Younger v. Barnhart, No. 02-6133, 2003 WL 21545097, at *6 (2d Cir. July 10, 2003); Shaw v. Chater, 221 F.3d 126, 134 (2d Cir. 2000).
Even if a treating physician's opinion is deemed not to be deserving of controlling weight, an ALJ may nonetheless give it "extra weight" under certain circumstances. Under C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1)-(6), the ALJ should consider the following factors when determining the proper weight to afford the treating physician's opinion if it is not entitled to controlling weight: (1) length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, (2) nature and extent of the treatment relationship, (3) supportability of opinion, (4) consistency, (5) specialization of the treating physician, and (6) other factors that are brought to the attention of the court. ...