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McConnell v. Astrue

March 27, 2008

TONI JO MCCONNELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas J. McAVOY Senior United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

Plaintiff, Toni Jo McConnell, brings this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405 for review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security to deny her application for disability insurance benefits. This action was referred to the Hon. Randolph F. Treece, United States Magistrate Judge, for a Report-Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 72.3(c).

The Report-Recommendation, filed on December 18, 2007, recommends that the Commissioner's decision denying Social Security benefits be affirmed and finds that the ALJ's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff has filed objections to the Report-Recommendation.

I. BACKGROUND

a. Procedural History

The Social Security Administration first denied Plaintiff's claim on September 21, 2000. Admin. Transcript [hereinafter Tr.] at 90. On September 26, 2000, Plaintiff filed a timely request for reconsideration. This was denied on December 18, 2000. Tr. at 94-95. On December 29, 2000, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Id. at 98. The hearing occurred on August 22, 2001 before ALJ John M. Lischak. Id. at 30-87. ALJ Lischak rendered a decision on December 7, 2001, concluding that Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments, specifically, "degenerative changes of the cervical spine and hypothyroidism with enlarged thyroid glands." Id. at 15-21. The ALJ concluded that, although Plaintiff could not return to her prior job as a factory worker, she did have a residual functional capacity (RFC) that allowed her to perform "light" or "sedentary" work. Id. The Appeals Council affirmed ALJ Lischak's decision and Plaintiff filed this action seeking review. Id. at 5.

b. ALJ's Analysis

In his analysis, the ALJ cited the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. In the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the alleged onset of the disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If not, the next inquiry is whether the claimant suffers from a medically determinable "severe" impairment established by medical evidence including signs, symptoms and laboratory findings. Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); § 404.1528. Symptoms alone, however, are not sufficient. Id. at § 404.1528. Severity is defined as significantly limiting an individual's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Id. at § 404.1521(a). Should the claimant be suffering from a medically determinable severe impairment, the third step is to determine whether the impairment is listed, or is equal to any listing, in Appendix I, which specifies over 100 medical conditions that would prevent an individual from performing "substantial gainful activity." Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); § 404.1525(a). If so, the individual is considered "disabled" under the Act and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the inquiry continues to the last two steps to determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform any past relevant work or other jobs that exist in the national economy, considering the claimant's age, education and work experience. Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv)-(v); Berry v. Schweiker, 675 F.2d 464, 467 (2d Cir. 1982).

In this case, ALJ Lischak determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since she stopped working on March 6, 2000. Tr. 16. In the second step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from "degenerative changes of the cervical spine and hypothyroidism with enlarged thyroid glands" and characterized them as severe impairments under the Act. Id. at 17. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) was not severe. Id. Despite details of a knee injury in the record, the ALJ did not consider or mention it in his findings. Id. Finally, because those impairments found to be severe were not listed in Appendix I, the ALJ continued the inquiry and determined that, although Plaintiff could not return to her prior job as a factory worker, she did have an RFC that allowed her to perform "light" or "sedentary" work. Id. at 17-19.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When objections to a magistrate judge's Report-Recommendation are lodged, the Court makes a "de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). After such a review, the Court may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Id.

Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether his or her findings were supported by substantial evidence. Knapp v. Apfel, 11 F. Supp. 2d 235, 237 (N.D.N.Y. 1998) (citing Beauvoir v. Chater, 104 F.3d 1432, 1433 (2d Cir. 1997); Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982)); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991) (citing Havas v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 783, 785 (2d Cir. 1986); Wagner v. Secretary of HHS, 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990)). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla" and requires "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citing Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (internal citations omitted)).

III. DISCUSSION

a. Severity of Plaintiff's Carpal ...


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