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Manning v. Astrue

March 4, 2009

TIMOTHY S. MANNING, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

Plaintiff Timothy S. Manning 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") and Supplemental Security income ("SSI") 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 6), and plaintiff has filed a cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings (Item 8). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is granted, and plaintiff's cross-motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on October 8, 1962 (Tr. 293).*fn1 He has a high school education, and has past work experience as a security guard, junkyard employee, and farm worker (Tr. 16). He applied for SSI benefits on July 31, 2003, and SSDI on August 4, 2003, alleging disability as of March 22, 2003 due to a nervous breakdown, vision problems, back/neck problems, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, and seizure-like activity (Tr. 45-47, 58, 274-76). These applications were denied initially on November 20, 2003 (Tr. 35). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on May 19, 2005 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") James Kemper, Jr. (Tr. 291-333). Plaintiff testified and was represented at the hearing by a non-attorney representative (Tr. 15). Jay Steinbrenner, a vocational expert, also testified at the hearing (Tr. 292, 328-332).

By decision dated January 17, 2007 the ALJ found that plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act (Tr. 15-27). Following the sequential process for evaluating disability claims outlined in the Social Security Administration Regulations (see 20 C.F.R. Parts 404 (SSDI) and 416 (SSI)), the ALJ reviewed the medical evidence and determined that plaintiff's impairments, while severe, did not meet or equal the criteria of an impairment listed in the Regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings") (Tr. 25). The ALJ considered plaintiff's allegations and testimony regarding his functional limitations, but found plaintiff to be "not totally credible" in this regard (Tr. 25). The ALJ then found that while plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work, he had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") for a range of light work which, when considered along with plaintiff's age, educational background, and the testimony of the vocational expert, led to the conclusion that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that plaintiff could perform (Tr. 26).

The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final determination on March 27, 2007, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 4-7). Plaintiff then brought this action for judicial review pursuant to section 405(g), seeking reversal of the Commissioner's determination or remand for further consideration of his claim for SSDI and SSI benefits. In his motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiff contends that the ALJ made the following errors:

1. Failure to properly assess the combined effect of plaintiff's physical and mental impairments in determining his RFC;

2. Failure to recontact plaintiff's treating physician for additional information regarding his opinion that plaintiff was "emotionally disabled."

Each of these grounds is discussed in turn below.

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.

II. Standard for Determining Eligibility for SSDI/SSI Benefits

To be eligible for SSDI or SSI benefits under the Social Security Act, plaintiff must show that he suffers from a 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 12 months . . .," 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), and is "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 . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Regulations set forth a five-step process to be followed when a disability claim comes before an ALJ for evaluation of the claimant's eligibility for benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is not, the ALJ must decide at step two if the claimant has a "severe" impairment, which is an impairment or combination of impairments that "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . ." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment is severe, the ALJ then determines at step three whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of an impairment found in the Listings. If the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant will be found to be disabled. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the fourth step requires the ALJ to determine if, notwithstanding the impairment, the claimant is capable of performing his or ...


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