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Stephens v. Astrue

June 25, 2009

THEREISTA F. STEPHENS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: George H. Lowe, United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

Plaintiff initially applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on September 15, 2001. Administrative Transcript ("T") at 86. Her application was denied by an Administrative Law Judge on March 25, 2004. See id. The Appeals Council denied review of that decision. See id. No further appeal was pursued. See id.; Dkt. No. 17 at 3.

Plaintiff filed another application for DIB on October 5, 2004, alleging that she had been disabled since February 8, 2000. T at 123-27. The application was denied on May 12, 2005. T at 100-03. An administrative hearing was held on May 30, 2007 before ALJ Elizabeth W. Koennecke. T at 748-78. On August 25, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled from the date of the previous ALJ's decision, March 25, 2004, through the date last insured, September 30, 2005.*fn2 T at 86-98.

Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 19, 2008. T at 5-8. Plaintiff commenced this action on April 11, 2008. Dkt. No. 1.

B. The Contentions

Plaintiff makes the following claims:*fn3

1. The ALJ improperly "impos[ed]" her opinions into the findings of fact. Dkt. No. 17 at 7-9.

2. The ALJ failed to adequately analyze the effects of Plaintiff's obesity. Dkt. No. 17 at 9-16.

3. The ALJ "misrepresented the nature of Plaintiff's lumbar spine condition." Dkt. No. 17 at 16.

4. The ALJ failed to fully develop the record. Dkt. No. 17 at 16-17.

5. The ALJ failed to consider Plaintiff's non-severe impairments. Dkt. No. 17 at 17.

6. The ALJ erred in evaluating the severity of several impairments. Dkt. No. 17 at 17-18.

7. The ALJ erred by failing to obtain the testimony of a vocational expert. Dkt. No. 17 at 17-18.

Defendant disagrees, and argues that the decision should be affirmed. Dkt. No. 19.

II. APPLICABLE LAW

A. Standard for Benefits

To be considered disabled, a plaintiff seeking disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income 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).

Acting pursuant to its statutory rulemaking authority (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(a), 1383(d)(1)), the Social Security Administration ("SSA") has promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. "If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003).

At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment," defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. [20 C.F.R. §§] 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled.[] If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.[] [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.9630(c). Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24-25 (footnotes omitted).

The plaintiff-claimant bears the burden of proof regarding the first four steps. Serrano v. Barnhart, Civ. No. 02-6372, 2003 WL 22683342, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 14, 2003). If the plaintiff-claimant meets his or her burden of proof on all four steps, the burden then shifts to the defendant-Commissioner to prove that the plaintiff-claimant is capable of performing other jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. (citing Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. at 25; other citations omitted).

B. Scope of Review

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. Brown v. Barnhart, Civ. No. 02-4523, 2003 WL 1888727, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 15, 2003); 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).

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. Serrano, 2003 WL 22683342, at *10; Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). "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).

III. THE PLAINTIFF

At the time of the administrative hearing held on May 30, 2007, Plaintiff was thirty-eight years old. T at 752. She completed high school and one year of college. T at 752-53. Plaintiff previously worked as, inter alia, a direct caregiver. T at 172. Plaintiff alleges disability due to the condition of her heart, high blood pressure, seizures, manic depression, and knee surgery. T at 137.

IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

The ALJ examined the issue of disability with regard to the period of March 26, 2004 through September 30, 2005 ...


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