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Caggiano v. Astrue

September 26, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny United States District Judge


1. Plaintiff Camille L. Caggiano challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") determination that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since December 3, 2002, by panic attacks, migraines, anxiety, and depression. Plaintiff contends that because her impairments render her unable to work, she is entitled to benefits under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on August 4, 2003. After her application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. The ALJ conducted a video teleconference hearing on June 9, 2006, at which Plaintiff appeared with her representative and testified. Vocational expert James Phillips also testified. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on June 29, 2006, issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. On April 27, 2007, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.

3. Plaintiff filed this action challenging Defendant's final decision on June 6, 2007.*fn1 On December 31, 2007, each party filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. At the conclusion of briefing on February 22, 2008, this Court took the motions under advisement without oral argument. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's is denied.

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 & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will be reversed only 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 that which 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 the 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's position 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 will 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 & 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 under the 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, and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled. 482 U.S. 137, 140-42, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed. 2d 119 (1987)

7. This five-step process is detailed below:

First, the [Commissioner] considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in 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 activities. If the claimant suffers 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) (quotations in original); see also Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 77 (2d Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

8. Although the claimant has the burden of proof on 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, 584 (2d Cir. 1984). The final step is 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 the five-step process set forth above: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant time period (R. at 16);*fn2 (2) Plaintiff's depressive disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, and personality disorder are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the Act (R. at 16); (3) Plaintiff's mental impairments do not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 (R. at 17); (4) Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity "to perform jobs that require no more than brief, superficial contacts with co-workers and no interactions with the general public. She is able to remember, understand and carry out no more than simple instructions and make simple work-related decisions. Ms. Caggiano can perform activities that do not involve rapid assembly line work, high production rate quotas or require more than 8 hours in a shift" (R. at 17); (5) Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past work (R. at 21); and (6) Plaintiff is a "younger individual" who retains the residual functional capacity to perform work available in the national economy (R. at 21-22). Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Act at any time through the date of his decision. (R. at 22-23.)

10. Plaintiff lodges a number of challenges to the ALJ's decision. One argument centers around the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff's long-standing headache condition is non-severe because it is controlled with medication. (R. at 17.) At step two of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's headaches are non-severe because "they have been responsive to conservative treatment and/or impose no more than minimal vocationally relevant limitations." (R. at 17.) Plaintiff argues that this conclusion is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. This Court agrees.

M. Reza Samie, M.D., a neurologist, treated Plaintiff for migraines. (R. at 210, 211). On January 25, 2003, Dr. Samie opined that Plaintiff had an "underlying migraine and anxiety disorder" and placed her on Maxalt and Nortriptyline. (R. at 211-12.) She noted that Plaintiff's headaches occurred several times per week and were moderate to severe, at times accompanied by nausea photophobia and worse with exertion. (R. at 211.) One month later, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Samie that she experienced "no major improvement" and continued to have ...

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