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Senecal v. Barnhart

March 24, 2008




1. Plaintiff Tonia L. Senecal challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not entitled to a period of disability insurance benefits ("DIB") or eligibility for supplemental security income benefits ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges she has been disabled since May 6, 2002, because of depression, anxiety, asthma and insomnia, and abdominal pain.

Procedural History

2. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI on February 12, 2004, alleging she was disabled because of depression, anxiety, asthma, and insomnia.*fn1 Her 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 on April 6, 2005, before ALJ Carl Stephan, at which time Plaintiff appeared. The ALJ postponed the hearing to allow Plaintiff time to seek representation. Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Stephan again on July 13, 2005, accompanied by her attorney. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on September 12, 2005, issued a decision finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. On December 21, 2005, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.

3. On February 17, 2006, Plaintiff filed a Civil Complaint challenging Defendant's final decision and requesting thatthe 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 and SSI benefits to Plaintiff.*fn2 The Defendant filed an answer to Plaintiff's complaint on June 1, 2006, requesting that the Court dismiss Plaintiff's complaint. On July 17, 2006, Plaintiff submitted a Motion and Memorandum to Vacate Commissioner's Decision (Plaintiff's Brief), requesting thatthe Court set aside the Commissioner's decision and award benefits to Plaintiff. The Defendant filed a Memorandum of Law in Support of the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures, on August 18, 2006.*fn3 After full briefing, the Court deemed oral argument unnecessary and took the motions under advisement.


Legal Standards and Scope of Review

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 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 has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 6, 2002, her alleged onset of disability date. She has met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2005 (R. at 16)*fn4 ; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 6, 2002 (R. at 16); (3) The medical evidence establishes that Plaintiff has asthma and mental impairments, but does not establish medical findings which meet or equal in severity the clinical criteria of any impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4 (R. at 16); (4) Plaintiff's subjective complaints are inconsistent with the objective findings in the record (R. at 16); (5) Plaintiff has retained the residual functional capacity to perform unskilled, simple, low stress sedentary work which requires lifting up to 10 pounds, walking for four hours out of an eight-hour workday, standing for two hours out of an eight-hour workday with occasional kneeling and crouching, and frequent handling, grabbing, and grasping large objects for the majority of an eight-hour workday, which work does not require a great deal of exposure to others (R. at 16); and (6) Plaintiff has retained the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work as an order picker (R. at 16). Accordingly, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not entitled to a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits, or supplemental security income payments under Sections 216(i), 223, 1602 and 1614(a)(3)(A), respectively, of the Social Security Act (R. at 16).

Plaintiff's Allegations

10. Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff is not disabled and asserts the ALJ's decision is not supported by the substantial evidence of record. Specifically Plaintiff alleges that (1) the ALJ did not consider and properly evaluate all of Plaintiff's evidence concerning her abdominal pain, (2) the ALJ failed to adequately assess Plaintiff's credibility, and (3) the ALJ improperly assessed Plaintiff's ability to return to her past employment. See Plaintiff's Brief, pp.1-2. The Court will address each of Plaintiff's allegations in sequence.

ALJ Did Not Consider and Evaluate All Plaintiff's Evidence of Abdominal Pain:

11. Plaintiff's first challenge to the ALJ's decision is that he did not evaluate all of the evidence Plaintiff submitted regarding her claims of abdominal pain. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ did not consider 181 pages of medical records submitted after the date of Plaintiff's hearing, especially evidence from treating physicians that Plaintiff was undergoing continued treatment for abdominal pain during June 2005, and afterward. See Plaintiff's Brief, 2-10. The Court disagrees with Plaintiff's first challengefor the reasons set forth below.

Plaintiff's medical record documents a history of periodic complaints of abdominal pain beginning May 25, 2001 (R. at 139). Plaintiff complained to her nurse practitioner of pain in her lower left quadrant.*fn5 Id. No irregularities were revealed during a physical examination of Plaintiff. Id.

On November 30, 2001, Plaintiff was examined by treating physician Dr. Wendy Gilchrist (R. at 167-168). Plaintiff complained of pain in her lower left quadrant when she moved or coughed (R. at 167). She also told Dr. Gilchrist that she had diarrhea for the preceding three days, but did not normally have trouble with her bowels. Id. Dr. Gilchrist noted she had no ...

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