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Abrams v. Astrue

September 11, 2008

JOHN F. ABRAMS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,*FN1 COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

Plaintiff John Abrams initiated this action pursuant to Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Social Security disability insurance ("SSDI") benefits. The Commissioner has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Item 5), and plaintiff has filed a cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings (Item 7). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and plaintiff's cross-motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on July 26, 1961 (Tr. 21).*fn2 He applied for SSDI benefits on April 26, 2004, alleging disability as of January 23, 2003 due to back injury (Tr. 17). Plaintiff's application was denied on July 8, 2004 (Tr. 17). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on June 14, 2005 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Douglas Abruzzo (see Tr. 282-98). Plaintiff testified and was represented by counsel.

By decision dated November 15, 2005, ALJ Abruzzo found that plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act for a closed period commencing on the alleged onset date of January 23, 2003 and ending on June 20, 2004, when his medical condition improved and he was cleared to go back to work (Tr. 17-27). The ALJ awarded plaintiff SSDI benefits through August 2004 (the end of the second month following the month in which disability ceased), but denied plaintiff's request for a nine-month "trial work period" under the Social Security Regulations (20 C.F.R. § 404.1592), which would have provided benefits through March 2005 (Tr. 25-26). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final determination on August 31, 2006, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 5).

Plaintiff filed this action on October 19, 2006 pursuant to the judicial review provision of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings (Item 6) on the ground that the ALJ's determination must be upheld because it is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Plaintiff responded by filing a cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings (Item 7), seeking a reversal of the denial of his request for a nine-month trial work period.

DISCUSSION

I. Scope of Judicial Review

The Social Security Act states that upon district court review of the Commissioner's decision, "[t]he findings of the Commissioner . . . as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is defined as evidence which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938), quoted in Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 773-72 (2d Cir. 1999). Under these standards, the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited, and the reviewing court may not try a case de novo or substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The court's inquiry is "whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached" by the Commissioner. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982), quoted in Winkelsas v. Apfel, 2000 WL 575513, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. February 14, 2000).

However, "[b]efore the insulation of the substantial evidence test comes into play, it must first be determined that the facts of a particular case have been evaluated in light of correct legal standards." Klofta v. Mathews, 418 F. Supp. 1139, 1141 (E.D.Wis. 1976), quoted in Gartmann v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 633 F. Supp. 671, 680 (E.D.N.Y. 1986). The Commissioner's determination cannot be upheld when it is based on an erroneous view of the law that improperly disregards highly probative evidence. Tejada, 167 F.3d at 773.

In this case, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ's denial of plaintiff 's request for a full nine-month trial work period is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and should be affirmed. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner failed to properly assess the evidence provided by plaintiff's treating physician, and therefore failed to show that plaintiff was not entitled to benefits for the full nine-month trial work period because his condition had medically improved as of June 2004.

II. Trial Work Period

The Regulations define the term "trial work period" as:

[A] period during which you may test your ability to work and still be considered disabled. . . . During this period, you may perform services . . . in as many as 9 months, but these months do not have to be consecutive. We will not consider those services as showing that your disability has ended until you have performed services in at least 9 months. However, after the trial work period has ended we will consider the work you did during the trial work period in determining whether your disability ended at any time after the trial work period.

20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1592(a); see Reed v. Astrue, 2008 WL 1902431, at *14 (W.D.N.Y. April 28, 2008). The trial work period begins with the month in which the claimant becomes entitled to benefits, and ends with the close of either the ninth month in which the claimant has performed services, or [t]he month in which new evidence, other than evidence relating to any work you did during the trial work period, shows that you are not disabled, even though you have not worked a full 9 months. We may find that your ...


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