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Dumas v. Commissioner of Social Security

September 4, 2008

GWENITH DUMAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Townes, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM and ORDER

Plaintiff, Gwenith Dumas ("plaintiff" or "Dumas"), seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), holding that plaintiff is not eligible for Social Security Income ("SSI") benefits because plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d). The Commissioner has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

On October 14, 1999, plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, claiming that she became disabled on April 23, 1999, because she suffers from polymyositis and asthma.*fn1

Administrative Transcript ("Tr."), pp. 68-91.*fn2 On January 27, 2000, her application was denied, and, after reconsideration, it was denied again on July 24, 2000. Id., pp. 50, 55-56. Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and on March 6, 2002, a hearing was held where plaintiff and her attorney were present. Id., pp. 60-61, 312-72. On April 24, 2003, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act because, despite suffering from severe impairments, she had the residual functional capacity to perform a wide range of sedentary work in environmentally clean atmosphere.*fn3 Id., pp. 18-29. Plaintiff, through her attorney, appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied plaintiff's request for review on August 20, 2004. Id., pp. 14, 5-7. Plaintiff then timely commenced this action.

On August 29, 2005, the Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ. P. 12(c). After granting plaintiff's requests for several extensions of time to file a response, the Court issued an Order, dated December 28, 2006, which directed plaintiff to file it within sixty (60) days. She has failed to make any submissions opposing the Commissioner's motion, and, accordingly, it is deemed fully briefed and ripe for determination.

DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Judicial review of SSIbenefit determinations is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). The statute expressly incorporates the standards established by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides, in relevant part, that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]" Thus, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by "substantial evidence" and there are no other legal or procedural deficiencies, then the decision must be affirmed. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 384 (2d Cir. 2004) ("In reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner, a district court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision."). The United States Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" to connote "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002) (same). "In determining whether substantial evidence supports a finding of the Secretary, the court must not look at the supporting evidence in isolation, but must view it in light of other evidence in the record that might detract from such a finding, including any contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences may be drawn." Rivera v. Sullivan, 771 F. Supp. 1339, 1351 (S.D.N.Y. 1991); see also Veino, 312 F.3d at 586 ("The district court's review of the Commissioner's decision regarding [the existence of a] disability is limited to a determination of whether the decision is supported by 'substantial evidence' in the record as a whole.").

The "substantial evidence" test applies only to the Commissioner's factual determinations; similar deference is not accorded to the Commissioner's legal conclusions or to the agency's compliance with applicable procedures mandated by statute or regulation. See Townley v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 109, 112 (2d Cir. 1984) ("This deferential ["substantial evidence"] standard of review is inapplicable, however, to the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law.") Accordingly, the Commissioner's legal conclusions and compliance with applicable regulatory and statutory mandates are reviewed de novo.

B. Disability Determinations

To qualify for disability insurance, a claimant must be deemed "disabled" under the Social Security Act,*fn4 which defines a person as disabled, "and thereby eligible for such benefits, 'only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.'" Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B)). In determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Act, the Commissioner applies a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 25 n.2 (2003) (noting that the five-step process remains in force despite the controlling regulation being amended effective September 25, 2003). The process provides that: (1) if the claimant is gainfully employed then she will be found "not disabled"; (2) if the claimant suffers from a "severe" impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then the analysis proceeds to the third step; (3) if the claimant's "severe" impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, then the claimant is disabled, if not, the analysis proceeds to the fourth step; (4) if after determining the claimant's residual functional capacity, the claimant can perform past relevant work, she will not be found disabled; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform any work she has done in the past, and the Commissioner determines that in conjunction with her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience, she cannot engage in other substantial gainful work reasonably available in the national economy, she is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

The claimant bears the burden of proving her disabled status for the purposes of steps one through four. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). However, "[a]t step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner to 'show there is other gainful work in the national economy [which] the claimant could perform.'" Butts, 388 F.3d at 383 (quoting Balsamo v. Chater, 142 F.3d 75, 80 (2d Cir. 1998)); see also Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 123 (2d Cir. 2000) ("Once a disability claimant proves that his severe impairment prevents him from performing his past work, the [Commissioner] then has the burden of proving ...


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