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Dehnert v. Astrue

August 3, 2009

WILLIAM C. DEHNERT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

I. INTRODUCTION

In June of 2005, Plaintiff William C. Dehnert filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that he has been unable to work since July 1, 2002, primarily due to knee pain and major depressive disorder. Plaintiff's application for benefits was denied by the Commissioner of Social Security.

Plaintiff, through his attorney, Ira Mendleson, III, Esq., commenced this action on August 30, 2007, by filing a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. (Docket No. 1). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).

On March 20, 2009, the Honorable Norman A. Mordue, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Docket No. 10).

For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds no reversible error and concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Thus, the Court recommends that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

II. BACKGROUND

The relevant procedural history may be summarized as follows. Plaintiff applied for SSI on June 21, 2005, alleging that he had been unable to work since July 1, 2002. (T*fn1 at 38-41). The application was denied on August 26, 2005. (T at 13, 34-37). Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on September 26, 2005. (T at 31-32). On November 27, 2006, a hearing was held in Albany, New York before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Robin Arzt. (T at 224). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (T at 224-227).

On February 20, 2007, ALJ Arzt issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. (T at 13-20). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on July 18, 2007, when the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 4-6).

Plaintiff commenced this action on August 30, 2007. (Docket No. 1). Plaintiff, through counsel, filed a supporting Brief on December 28, 2007. (Docket No.7). The Commissioner filed a Brief in opposition on February 1, 2008. (Docket No. 8).

Pursuant to General Order No. 18, issued by the Chief District Judge of the Northern District of New York on September 12, 2003, this Court will proceed as if both parties had accompanied their briefs with a motion for judgment on the pleadings.*fn2

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

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 only be reversed if the correct legal standards were not applied, or it was not supported by substantial evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 983, 986 (2d Cir.1987) ("Where there is a reasonable basis for doubt whether the ALJ applied correct legal principles, application of the substantial evidence standard to uphold a finding of no disability creates an unacceptable risk that a claimant will be deprived of the right to have her disability determination made according to the correct legal principles."); 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 evidence that 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). "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." 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 may 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).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process*fn3 to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1520. The United States Supreme Court recognized the validity of this analysis in Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and it remains the proper approach for analyzing whether a claimant is disabled.

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 the inquiry is, in turn, divided into two parts. First, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's job qualifications by considering his or her 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. §§ 416.920(g); 404.1520(g); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983).

B. Analysis

1. Commissioner's Decision

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 21, 2005. (T at 15). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the "severe" impairment of recurrent major depressive disorder. (T at 15). However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's mental impairment did not meet or equal the level of severity of any disabling condition set forth in Appendix 1 of the applicable Social Security Act Regulations (the "Regulations"). (T at 15). The medical records indicated that Plaintiff had suffered a sprain in medial collateral ligament of his left knee, but that it had been fully resolved by December 2005. (T at 17). The ALJ concluded that there was no medical basis in the record for Plaintiff's complaints of ongoing knee pain. Plaintiff does not challenge this conclusion.

After reviewing the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to "perform unskilled work at all exertional levels." (T at 15). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work as an electrician because it is "too mentally demanding." (T at 19). The ALJ gave Plaintiff "advanced age" status because he is over 55. (T at 19). The ALJ found that, given Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, past work experience, age, and educational background (high school education), he can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (T at 19). Therefore, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a "disability," as defined under the Act. (T at 20).

As noted above, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on July 18, 2007, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 4-6).

2. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed. Plaintiff offers five (5) principal arguments in support of his position. First, he contends that the ALJ erred by failing to consider medical evidence relating to the period prior to June 2005. Second, he argues that there is no substantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform alternative work. Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not give sufficient weight to the opinions of his treating physicians. Fourth, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly assess his subjective testimony regarding pain and disabling symptoms. Fifth and finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to consult a vocational expert. This Court will address each argument in turn.

a. Consideration of Evidence from Period Prior to June 2005

When deciding whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ has a duty to develop the record. Pursuant to the applicable regulations, the ALJ must, before making a determination that a claimant is not disabled, develop the claimant's "complete medical history for at least the 12 months preceding" the month in which the claimant filed the application for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(d); see also DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1184 (2d Cir.1998). The ALJ is required to "gather such information for a longer period if there [is] reason to believe that the information [is] necessary to reach a decision." DeChirico, 134 F.3d at 1184 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(B) as incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(G) and 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(d)).

However, "where there are no obvious gaps in the administrative record, and where the ALJ already possesses a 'complete medical history,' the ALJ is under no obligation to seek additional information in advance of rejecting a benefits claim." Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72, 79 n. 5 (citing Perez v. Chater, 77 F.3d 41, 48 (2d Cir. 1996)).

In this case, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's psychiatric clinical records from 2003 to early 2005 were "not relevant because they are regarding the claimant's mental status before the application filing date." (T at 18). Plaintiff argues that this finding was contrary to § 416.912 (d). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have considered the records from 2003 to early 2005 because the evidence from that period established that he is disabled under the Act.

This Court finds Plaintiff's argument unavailing. Section 416.912 (2) required the ALJ to develop a complete medical history dating back at least to June 21, 2004, one year prior to the application for benefits. That medical history was, in fact, developed. To wit, the administrative record contains numerous clinical records from 2003 and 2004. (T at 79-130). Plaintiff does not allege or offer any documents from that period that were not included in the medical history developed by the ALJ. Section 416.912 (d) refers to the ALJ's obligation to obtain information necessary to compile a complete medical history; it does not require the ALJ to find all of the information in ...


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