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Jones v. Commissioner of Social Security

September 10, 2008

JOHN JONES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



Introduction

1. This matter has been referred to the undersigned for all further proceedings, including the entry of judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the consent of the parties, and the order of Chief United States District Judge Norman A. Mordue dated April 23, 2008. (Dkt. No. 14; see Dkt. No. 13). Plaintiff claims that (1) The ALJ failed to follow the treating physician rule, (Brief, pp. 7-10) and (2) The ALJ erroneously evaluated Plaintiff's credibility. (Brief, pp. 5-7). The defendant argues that the Commissioner's determination is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and must be affirmed.

Procedural History

2. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on October 5, 2004, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2002. (Administrative Transcript ("T") at 45-48, 261-63). The application was denied initially and a request was made for a hearing. (T. 22-28). A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on May 5, 2006. Id. at 264-84. In a decision dated July 27, 2006, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. Id. at 10-19. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 16, 2007. Id. at 2-3.

Discussion

Legal Standard and Scope of Review

3. To be considered disabled, a plaintiff seeking disability insurance benefits or SSI disability benefits must establish that he is "unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). In addition, the plaintiff's physical or mental impairment or impairments [must be] 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner uses a five-step process, set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 to evaluate disability insurance and SSI disability claims.

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); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

4. 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).

5. In reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner, a court must determine whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether substantial evidence supports the decision. Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F. Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (citing Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 985 (2d Cir. 1987)). A reviewing court may not affirm an ALJ's decision if it reasonably doubts whether the proper legal standards were applied, even if the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. Johnson, 817 F.2d at 986. In addition, 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. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 1984).

6. A court's factual review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to the determination of whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rivera v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 964, 967 (2d Cir. 1991). "Substantial evidence has been defined as 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Williams on behalf of Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988)(citations omitted). It must be "more than a scintilla" of evidence scattered throughout the administrative record. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 197 U.S. 229 (1938)).

7. "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. 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. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). See also Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1212 (1983).

8.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 meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2006; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2002, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., 416.920(b), and 416.971 et seq.); (3) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: a low back and neck disorder (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)); (4) Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 416.925, and 416.926); (5) After careful consideration of the entire record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry a maximum of 20 pounds at a time, with the frequent lifting and carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds; stand or walk for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; sit for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; push or pull arm or leg controls some of the time; and use the arms and hands to grasp, hold and turn objects; (6) Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as an assistant with pre-school children, as he described it in his Work History Report (Exhibit 3E), which required him to lift and carry less than 10 pounds; stand and walk for 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; and sit for 5 hours in an 8-hour workday with occasional climbing. Plaintiff is also capable of performing his job as a cook, as he described it in his Work History Report (Exhibit 3D), which required him to left and carry less than 10 pounds, stand for 5 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit for 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by ...


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